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Two Cats Walking

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by Bettina Selby

  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

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Review by Deborah Fisher

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