Book Review

Cat Step by Alison Irvine

She only left her daughter in the car for a minute; just a quick minute whilst she ran into the shop. She barely thought twice about making that decision, but it soon began to consume her every thought. And not just her thoughts, but those of every neighbour, police and social security worker in a fifteen-mile radius . But this is her child. Surely she knows best?

After she’d made the move to a small town in Scotland, the rolling hills and blustery beaches seemed to be the perfect backdrop for her and her four-year-old daughter, Emily, to start again, to mend and move on. It wasn’t always easy just the two of them, but Liz was sure that she can manage. And now this?

I love the way in which the novel opens as Liz confesses to the reader that she isn’t sure what she’ll tell her daughter, Emily, about their brief time in Lennoxtown if she’s ever asked.  It’s clear that something happened there and that their time in the town with its picturesque backdrop of the Campsie Fells was cut short and I immediately wanted to know why.  Their problems begin with a snap decision – made in the heat of the moment – that proves to have long-reaching repercussions as both Liz and her ability as a parent come under scrutiny from all and sundry – the authorities and Joe Public alike. 

As Liz shares her tale with the reader – the warts and all account that will most likely be edited for Emily’s benefit – we learn more about her.  A dancer, she spent time on cruise ships where she met her partner, Robbie.  They eventually leave so that Robbie can return to education while Liz lands a dream role in Paris.  It’s a role that proves to be short-lived as she discovers that she’s pregnant and while she willingly gives up her dream, it seemed to me that there was a small part of her that sometimes wondered “what if”.  She very clearly loves her daughter and has no regrets, but I don’t think that prevents one from wondering what might have been…

Robbie grew up in Lennoxtown and their stay there is the perfect chance for Liz to find out more about him and his life before she met him.  Quickly discovering that there may have been more the man that she knew, she stops at nothing to find out more – reluctant though the locals are to discuss him – and her methods border on bullying as she pursues the truth. It’s unpleasant in some cases and Liz knows that she’s gone too far, and yet her determination keeps her pushing at the boundaries of what’s acceptable and what’s intrusive as she seeks out answers whatever the cost.  I found this to be an intriguing subplot and enjoyed seeing it unfold against the backdrop of everything else that Liz is going through.  Lennoxtown has that small-town vibe, and while a few people – like Robbie – have managed to escape, there are plenty around who knew him when he was younger.  Their reluctance to say too much should be a clear sign to Liz to let sleeping dogs lie, but she’s driven by her own reasons to find out more. It’s a horrible situation to be in, and I don’t think I could have left it alone, either.

Throughout the novel, Liz and Emily’s relationship is portrayed honestly, exploring the difficulties faced by those raising a child on their own and the way in which others can be so very quick to pass judgement.  There are some beautiful moments between them, demonstrating the bond between mother and child, but Irvine doesn’t shy away from the less appealing side of the relationship.  Emily isn’t always the easiest child, and we see her tantrums and misbehaviour as well as the moments when Liz acknowledges that she is distracted and maybe not paying as much attention to her daughter as she might like.  I think that Irvine highlights the way in which motherhood doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and while it can be joyous and rewarding, it can also be exhausting, stressful, and isolating.  It’s obvious that Liz is trying her best in less-than-ideal circumstances, but she doesn’t always get it right.  But then, who does?  I think that most just don’t have to face up to the consequences in the way that Liz does here.

Cat Step is a quiet novel in some respects but one that is utterly compelling.  Beautifully written, I love the ballet terminology used throughout (all explained if, like me, you’re not familiar with it) and how certain steps relate so well to the scenes in the novel.  I think that this helps bring Liz to life for the reader while adding a little je ne sais quoi to the narrative.  It’s a brilliant and honest portrayal of motherhood and the ways in which grief affects us. 

Published by Dead Ink Books, Cat Step is available now in paperback, eBook, and audio formats.

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