1866. Joe Rat, a ‘tosher’ who scavenges in the London sewers, is in thrall to ‘Mother’, who controls her patch ruthlessly and claims most of his finds. He is bullied, beaten and half-starved, but he manages to hide what he can in Poundfield, a disused pets’ cemetery backing onto a haunted house belonging to the ‘Madman’, a place feared by all.
Then comes a chance encounter with Bess, a country girl, brought to London by her mother’s fancy man, ostensibly to find her a respectable job, but in reality to sell her into a brothel. Soon Joe and Bess are on the run and the only safe place Joe knows is the Madman’s house – and rumour has it that he’s a murderer…
Barratt’s chosen setting is Shoreditch, in a slum depicted in Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago (1896). Morrison’s ‘Jago’, which he researched personally, is as deprived, criminal and ruled by gangs as Barratt’s, but also a place whose inhabitants unite against the common enemy – the law, and where neighbours don’t ‘peach’ on each other. Barratt’s world, by contrast, is one where dog eats dog and offers Joe nothing: no hope of getting out nor even of having friends he can trust.
I found much of the book depressing. The blurb calls it ‘Dickensian’. Yes, the slums are as bad as anything in Dickens and some of the characters as grotesque, but Dickens’ heroes, unlike Barratt’s, have real friends and there is hope. At the end, Joe refuses the two decent homes he’s offered. Boys from destitute backgrounds could make good – Morrison himself did, as did the explorer Henry Stanley, a workhouse boy. But Joe ends the book as he began, uneducated, homeless and without friends. It will not be long before ‘Mother’ finds him. For 12 plus.