If I hadn't already known that Bettina Selby was a distinguished travel writer, I might have been
able to guess, from the lovely descriptive sequences which are a prominent feature of this book. It is quite audacious of
Ms Selby to venture into this new territory of "feline autobiography". The experiment is, mostly, a successful one.
The one major question that troubled me, almost as soon as I picked up the book, was: What is the
intended audience? The jacket tells us that the story can "be enjoyed at any age", and the cover illustration is designed
to appeal to a younger audience, so I passed it on to my thirteen-year-old daughter for a second opinion. Regrettably, teenagers
these days don't seem to have the staying power required to appreciate the kind of elegant and effortless prose which is Bettina
Selby's speciality. The approach wasn't direct enough for my daughter, and the humour was too subtle.
It is actually a very funny book, and I caught myself laughing out loud more than once, but the story
does take a while to get going. With many digressions, it doesn't properly begin until nearly halfway through what is not
exactly a thick volume. As for the plot, it has been done before. We are in the territory of 101 Dalmatians and The
Incredible Journey, but Bettina Selby puts an original spin on it, bringing our feline heroines into the computer age.
Their odyssey - from Kent to mid-Wales - parallels Homer, as they dodge their pursuers by clinging to the fleece of sheep
in transit, in order to cadge a lift across the Severn Bridge.
The greatest difficulty, I think, results from having the "two cats" of the title as narrators. The
author has decided, not unreasonably, that they should talk like humans whilst believing themselves a superior species. The
effect falls somewhere between worldly sophistication and childish vanity (rather like teenagers, now that I come to think
of it) - amusing, but not always convincing, and not, at first, emotionally involving. But then, I am not a cat person.
If you are a cat person, on the other hand, then of course you will love it. And I must admit,
Sappho and Dido grew on me, reminding me as the chapters passed of other fictional characters - Barbara Pym's Harriet and
Belinda Bede, perhaps, or E F Benson's Mapp and Lucia. In time, though I never quite grew to love them, I did begin to feel
some empathy with them. There are other animals in the story - a motherly cow, a sensible fox, and so on. All are given human
personalities, which is fine except when they are allowed to turn into human bores, holding forth on subjects like conservation
and hunting. This polemic is part of the author's message, but might come across better if it were woven more discreetly into
the story. The pheasant-shooting scene, for example, would be more effective without the accompanying diatribe on the cowardice
of human killers.
Overall, though, the book's good points far outnumber the bad. The characterisation is effective,
the story entertaining if not as moving as the author intended. The black-and-white drawings between the chapters (the artist
is Marieanne Griffiths) are quite enchanting, far superior to the cover. In short, this is lightweight reading, the ideal
thing for sitting in the garden on a summer afternoon. There's nothing wrong with that.
ISBN 0 9538007 0 9 Published by Mountain House, 2000.
145pp, illustrated hardback Retail price £12.95
Buy this item from Amazon
Review by Deborah Fisher
If you like this, you'll probably like:
The Suburban Timeshare: an urban fox novel