From page one of Mice by British author Gordon Reece, I found the main characters sympathetic, yet repulsive. Fortunately, this was the author’s intention, otherwise why show teenaged Shelley and her mother in that light? Shelley tells us they never assert themselves. She says they are mice. “Mice are never rude. Mice are never assertive” (2). The mother caved in to every unreasonable demand from her husband, Shelley’s father, who left her for a twenty-something girl. “Mum” signed away all right to alimony and a share of her husband’s pension, and she even returned some of the gifts he’d given her during their marriage.
With such an example it’s no surprise Shelley submits to vicious, systematic bullying at school from girls who once were her best friends. It’s no wonder the girls, even after the last, most horrific attack, go unpunished. They aren’t even suspended from classes. To bring them to justice means confrontation. Shelley and Mum can’t bring themselves to that, so they find a place to hide instead.
Mother and daughter are introduced to us while searching out the perfect house, that is, the perfect mouse hole. They want a house far from town, far from neighbors. And that’s what they find. For months Shelley and her mother live in peace in their hideaway, Honeysuckle Cottage. Mice need a lot of peace. Shelley takes tutoring at home. Her mother, a brilliant lawyer, works at a demeaning job because she won’t demand a better position for better wages. But they have each other, and they have Honeysuckle Cottage.
Until the wee hours of Shelley’s sixteenth birthday, when a cat comes to play.
What happens to mice when the cat corners them? And afterward? The answers chilled me and compelled me to continue reading. Shelley and her mother couldn’t possibly be the same, and Reece’s fine characterizations led me to believe the actions they took in consequence. When you hide as long as these characters do, try to stay unnoticed, and take beating after beating, you damage yourself—and others.
His examination of the effects of bullying on the bullied and the bully raised a lot of questions, some unexpected, but apt. “So much of what Mum was was made up of what she’d read. Is that what our middle-class culture created? People formed more by the books they’d read than the lives they’d lived? . . . Maybe we’d both begun to live real lives after [what had happened]” (203). Those words, to anyone who’s lived with her nose stuck in a book since infancy, can’t help but deliver a shock to the system and give the kind of pause one expects from a really good book.
A few things bothered me. Did the events have to take place on Shelley’s sixteenth birthday? And did a particular passage of Moby Dick have to be her assigned reading the morning after? I think Reece arranged it to give the reader a major clue—or did it?—about what and who motivated the crime. Some things felt contrived.
Quibbles aside, I sped through the book, eager to know what came next, and the ending, while convenient, was satisfying. The use of the word purred on the last page made me shiver.
What does happen to mice when you corner them once too often? Read Mice and find out! You won’t be disappointed.