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The Bat Tattoo book cover
The original version of the cover art...the final version omits the bottom crash test dummy image and the bat takes over.

The Bat Tattoo (2002)

A Novel by Russell Hoban


  • (UK) Hardcover (First Edition) - Bloomsbury Publishing, Oct. 2002.
    256 pp. £15.99. ISBN # 0-7475-6022-6


The Bat Tattoo can be ordered from Bloomsbury's own Web site (just search the title or "Russell Hoban"), or via Amazon UK. Unfortunately, it hasn't been released in the US yet, but US readers can order copies via Web from the aforementioned sites.


Story synopsis:

Roswell Clark's life had arrived at the point when he felt he needed to get an optimistic-looking bat tattoo on his shoulder. His ideal bat image was featured on an 18th century bowl in the Victoria and Albert Museum, but strangely, on a visit to the museum, he encountered a woman called Sarah Varley, who was clearly compelled by the same bat. What did it mean? Sarah dealt in antiques and Roswell soon ran into her stalls in Chelsea and Covent Garden. His calling, which grew out of an obsession with crash-test dummies, was a bit harder to explain. It led from the invention of a popular children's toy to lucrative commissions from a Parisian sybarite for wooden working models with very adult moving parts. Both Roswell and Sarah had lost their spouses and were still grieving in their different ways. And then Christ started putting a hand in — not in the "born again" sense, but literally — a hand, a fragment of an ancient crucifix that fetched up in one of Sarah's antique lots. Between some compulsion conveyed by this hand and Sarah's natural urge to make improvements in people, Roswell's work took a surprising new turn. Russell Hoban's delicious new novel combines much about art — traditional and conceptual — with new angles on Christ, crash-test dummies, antiques and pornography — a pleasure on every page and as mysterious and uplifting as bat wings.

Head of Orpheus review:

The Bat Tattoo is one of Russ's strongest novels in recent years, and (as pointed out in the Guardian review) seems to complete a trilogy of sorts with Angelica's Grotto and Amaryllis Night and Day. All three novels take place in Hoban's atmospheric London, a city made of quiet desperation, fateful path-crossings, and deeply purposeful museum rambles where art pieces operate as speaking symbols, talismans, and spirit guides. (And in Tattoo we hear news of Amaryllis's main characters, just as in Amaryllis we heard musings on the fate of Harold Klein from Grotto.)

The Bat Tattoo borrows Turtle Diary's technique of switching back and forth between the voices of two main characters who see some of the same events from slighly different perspectives, and whose paths become ever more interwined. Sarah Varley sells art objects and bric-a-brac from a market stall. Roswell Clark is a toy-inventor turned sculptor who specializes in grimly ironic pieces involving crash test dummies. Both are widowed and a little bit lost in their own private worlds. Their paths cross one day while visiting a bat on a Chinese bowl at the Victoria and Albert Museum — a bat both like enough to have tattooed on their shoulders, and this "coincidence" serves as the beginning place to their story.

But The Bat Tattoo ups the ante by adding a third voice: in addition to our two protagonists, Roswell and Sarah, we hear the voice of eccentric art patron Adelbert Delarue who adds a wonderfully complicating distant third point to the book's lopsided triangle of relationships. As Delarue hires Roswell to create elaborate crash-dummy-themed sculpture from afar, sending instructions by messenger, he takes on a role somewhere between muse and trickster. Delarue adds not only dimension but bittersweet comic relief — he's easily one of the most amusing and entertainingly idiosyncratic character voices Hoban has written, giving us startlingly odd observations in a gracefully clumsy second-language English executed with Hoban's masterful ear for language.

My only regret is that I wish we'd heard a little more of Sarah Varley's voice in the mix — Roswell Clark carries the slight majority (or at least plurality) of the narration, but Sarah V. is one of the most substantial and fully present female characters Hoban has ever written (as opposed to the perpetually absent or elusive Eurydices and Luises and Amaryllises), and I found myself enjoying the book most when we were seeing through her eyes.

The Bat Tattoo isn't a heavy-hitter of a book: it doesn't punch you in the gut or make you laugh till you cry. But if you spend a little time with its characters you'll feel glad of their company, enriched by their encounters and discoveries, your awareness sharpened and deepened by their observations and reflections. The book sneaks up on you and works its magic on subtle levels not visible to the naked eye, at moments when you're not expecting it. It'll make you think and keep you thinking after you've closed the covers. In other words, it's classic Hoban.


"In The Bat Tattoo, Hoban's inquisition into embodiments of suffering and redemption often takes the more restrained form of a touring history lesson about the objects that have caught his eye in various churches and museums across Europe. But what better guide than he, whose meditations seem to stem from real creative rapture, and whose visionary interpretations are a joy to explore."
The Times

"The Bat Tattoo completes a trilogy of masterful late works, developing themes and borrowing characters from these previous books while effortlessly surpassing both...The Bat Tattoo confirms that Hoban is still more than OK. He remains a magnificently angry, unashamedly dirty old man, whose surreal vigour shows no signs of giving out yet. Trust him, he's a weirdo. "
The Guardian

"A deep and thought-provoking novel."
Books Quarterly

"Humorous, playful and very enjoyable."
Daily Mail


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