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Posted on 18 Aug 2022 in Fiction |

KIM KELLY The Rat Catcher. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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In her latest novel Kim Kelly blends a slice of Sydney’s history with an Irish love story.

In February 1900, Sydney was sweltering in the sort of summer heat that, as The Rat Catcher’s Patrick O’Reilly says, sent ‘ale sizzling down your throat as if the amber liquid bore a life of its own’. The first case of bubonic plague had just been reported, and plague-infected rats escaping from foreign ships docked at Sydney’s wharves were being blamed for it.

Patrick, who is the narrator of The Rat Catcher, has just been laid off from his labouring job at the wharves, and is consoling himself with this amber liquid when he first hears about ‘Old Scratch’, a large rat with a colourful history as told by the pub landlord, Maloney:

Big bastard rat, and in he waltzes every night, helping himself to whatever he likes – bread, sugar, tea, beer. I’ve tried everything to catch him but he’s smarter and trickier than any other rat I’ve ever known. He scoffs at any trap I’ve laid, finds the baits I’ve made him tasty, and last night he ate my cat.

Maloney goes on to tell of Old Scratch’s adventurous life at sea, his capture, the attempt to drown him, and his inventive genius, which led to his miraculous survival and eventual arrival in Sydney. It is an Irish tale that just may be ‘a True Story’, as Kim Kelly tells us, quoting, ‘more or less’, an account in the Wagga Wagga Express of 6 January 1900.

Maloney gives Patrick a temporary job helping to fill his basement with a load of rat-deterrent tin clippings. Then, following a tip-off from Father Ryan at the church where he attends Mass, Patrick finds a new job working as a rat-catcher for Sydney City Council’s Department of Health. Patrick is a fine Irish storyteller, and his description of the interview process at the Department of Health, the lecture by ‘Mr Creedy. The Bacteriology feller’, and the anti-plague inoculations he and his fellow applicants are given, are colourful, opinionated and funny:

There was a near scramble for the line-up at the door of the medical office down the hall, where, inside, that bacteriologist feller was saying to each one of us as we entered, ‘Drop your trousers’, before shoving a syringe the size of a train carriage into each of our backsides.

Old Scratch eventually plays an important part in Patrick’s life, but the real focus of his story is not the rat-catching but his love for Rosie Hughes. From the moment he sets eyes on her at the Bondi Baths, he is smitten. So, as the subtitle of the book tells us, this is ‘a love story’.

Rosie, Patrick accidentally discovers, lives close to his lodgings and knows his neighbour, Annie Kildare. After surreptitiously and unsuccessfully watching the street for a chance sighting of Rosie, and finding himself to be ‘a ball of nervous wrigglings and jitterings’, Patrick steels himself, grasps a can of peaches as an excuse, and calls on Annie to see if she can tell him more.

 I held out the can of peaches, whispering, ‘Just wanted to know whatever you might know about Miss Hughes next door.’

‘Oh are you just?’ Annie let her amusement be heard in that, taking the can.

Rosie, she tells him, has an injured father to take care of and ‘her late sister’s little boy, Laurie’. She also works as a barmaid. And, when Patrick enquires further, she ‘is not religious either way’. Patrick, who is Catholic, holds English Protestants responsible for the poverty and discrimination he escaped from when he left Ireland for Australia.

Satisfied that Rosie is a good Irish girl, Patrick comes up with ‘a grand plan’. He has seen that Rosie loves swimming, so he will invite her to go with him to Little Coogee Beach, where, unlike most Sydney beaches, mixed bathing is allowed.

Of course there are misunderstandings and events that interrupt Patrick’s friendship with Rosie, but, as Patrick has told us at the beginning of his story, you must ‘Never underestimate the ingenuity of an Irishman in love … suffice to say that I, Patrick O’Reilly, surprised even myself with the lengths and breadths of my endeavours.’

As a rat-catcher, however, Patrick discovers that he is not ‘the right stuff for this job’: making poisons, setting traps, turfing hundreds of dead rats into the incinerator:

I’d never seen death like this before, noticed the pinkness of their noses or that their little pink paws looked like hands not so different from my own ….

To say I felt like Satan’s second-in-command as I recorded 859 creatures into the ledger book of death that day would be a tremendous understatement.

Plague deaths continue to rise in Sydney, so Patrick perseveres, but he is horrified to see people, with all their belongings, being turned out of their homes so that the building can be drenched with carbolic water. He objects, but is told ‘things are done this way to save lives’. He also finds the courage to confront his boss about the need for overtime rates for himself and his fellow workers, which brings him to the boss’s notice and eventually leads to him being given the of job catching a rat that is devouring books in Sydney’s Public Lending Library.

Unsurprisingly, the rat in question turns out to be Old Scratch. What happens next involves Patrick, Rosie, two small boys and a boat trip to Parramatta and, naturally, this being an Irish love story, there is a happy ending. Yet, light-hearted as it mostly is, Patrick’s accounts of the Sydney plague are based on fact. So, too, is his depiction of the life of poor Irish immigrants in the 1900s, and the prejudice and bigotry they frequently experienced. But, as Patrick says, Australia was a place where you could make a better life if only you had faith in yourself.

Kim Kelly’s Patrick has to learn to have such faith but he has a voice and personality that make him a very likeable character. Rosie, too, turns out to have hidden talents, surprising Patrick when he comes across her in the city chatting to friends with whom she has just attended a meeting of the Women’s Suffrage League. This too is part of Sydney’s history, and Patrick, unlike many other men at that time, is proud of her taking ‘this bold step into the world’ and just loves her more for it.

Kim Kelly, in her Author’s Note, briefly outlines the historical facts about the bubonic plague, which infected 1371 people and killed 535 in Sydney in the 12 major outbreaks that occurred between 1900 and 1925. The Rat Catcher is based on the information she has ‘trawled’ from ‘old newspapers of the day’, but, she says, she has ‘tossed many of the details of early 1900 together in a fact-salad to suit O’Reilly’s adventures’. Altogether (even including the rats and rat-catching that are part of the history), she has created a very enjoyable salad.

Kim Kelly The Rat Catcher: A love story Brio Books 2022 PB 192pp $24.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

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