Saturday, July 28

The Cats – Joan Phipson

The morning Jim’s mother opened the mail at breakfast and discovered that the family had won the lottery, he thought they had it made. It was all a little hazy in retrospect, so he couldn’t remember if they were walking home from school, or had just been larking about in town. Whatever it was, Jim had excitedly told everyone he met, and on that long, hot walk he and his younger brother Wally had been making plans. Wally was always a little unusual – he’d take himself off in the bush for days at a time, and he wasn’t as chatty and outgoing as Jim – but even he was thrilled by the news of the big win.
They didn’t hear the car pull up, but when the older, admirable Socker and his side-kick Kevin pulled up and offered them a lift the rest of the way, Jim didn’t think twice before jumping in the car. Wally was a little more hesitant, and that’s when Kevin showed them the rifle.
Socker’s plan was simple – drive into the bush, park the boys at a run down shack he’d found, leave them guarded by Kevin, head off for a secluded phone, and call their father for the ransom. The car was well stocked with food, he’d checked out the lay of the land, he had Kevin for back-up, and a rifle – what could go wrong?
This captivating book for young teens is absorbing, well written, tightly plotted and well characterised. There is very little telling – the boys’ personalities are beautifully depicted through their actions, dialogue, and a little through Jim’s thoughts. Over the course of the novel, which unfolds over a few days, he loses his star-struck admiration for Socker (the ghosts of which occasionally resurfaced despite the fact that he was holding Jim hostage) and develops a new appreciation for the younger brother he previously paid scant attention to. Wally has a deep respect for, and affinity with, the cats that form the biggest threat to the group, a group whose power structure shifts fluidly throughout the course of the novel.
The Cats was inspired by an article about feral cats in rural Australia, a significant issue in this country - they kill native fauna, breed at an astonishing rate, and are well over twice the size of domestic cats, and this is a issue that has only grown in the quarter century since the novel was written. Phipson takes this jumping off point and runs – her cats are huge, intelligent, can communicate with each other, and think ahead. Or at least they seem to – the novel is laced with the fear, paranoia and irrational a small group experiences when isolated and assailed by frightening and unfamiliar things in a hostile environment.
The Cats is very obviously a product of its time, the late 1970’s; the boys (Jim especially) are more naïve than is generally the case now, the postman came by at breakfast time, there is an alarming use of the word ‘cove’, and there are no mobile phones or similar technology. As the vast majority of the action takes place in the bush this last really isn’t a significant issue. I was a little more concerned with the one plot hole I found: Socker has decided to kidnap the brothers, stocked provisions, scoped out a place to stash the boys, worked out a route to a working phone that involves crossing a river, and recruited the malleable Kevin, all in the space of a day. While this is possible, a key plot point is that conditions have changed sufficiently so that Socker has to adjust his plans.
This is a tiny flaw in an otherwise solid, engaging and beautifully constructed book that is involving, interesting, and redolent of rural Australia. - Alex


Brian Yatman said...

For some reason I've been thinking about this book lately; trying to piece together the story from 30-year old memories. I couldn't even remember the author's name, and only fairly tortuous googling lead me to your blog. I'm surprised to see I'd completely forgotten about the kidnapping - all that was left were the cats, boys lost in the bush, and an atmosphere of unease. So, thanks for filling in some gaps - Brian

Alex and Lynn Ward said...

Hi Brian - glad I could help :) It really is a strong and evocative book. Like you, I last read it over thirty years ago and though I forgot specific details the general sense of it stayed with me all that time. It was a really interesting experience reading it again as an adult - Alex