‘The Cat and the City’ by Nick Bradley

Nick Bradley’s debut novel is a collection of intertwined stories that take place in Tokyo, this fascinating, terrifying, overpopulated and lonely city. Although the stories initially seem separate from one another, the reader will quickly recognise the recurring characters and realise that they are all connected in one way or another. And, of course, there is a calico cat that makes an appearance in every single one of these stories, leaving its mark in the lives of all these struggling characters. 41zU1ZzTcRL.SX316.SY316

Japanese literature is known for its frequent fascination with cats, and Bradley, having himself lived and worked in Japan, attempted to weave a story of this complicated city where anything and everything seems possible. Instead of an ode to Tokyo and Japan in general, Bradley often seems to view certain events and practices with a critical eye, which is quite refreshing, since most foreigners who write about Japan tend to over-romanticise the country and everything they have experienced whilst there.

I also enjoyed Bradley’s prose and writing style a lot. While I started this book with a certain level of caution and apprehension, I was quickly drawn into the author’s words and found myself reading one story after another, curious to discover which character we are going to follow next and what kind of role the calico cat will play in the story. I also loved how Bradley’s writing seemed to change and shift according to the needs of the story, while some stories surpassed the boundaries of conventional prose as they were enriched with pages of a manga comic one of the characters was writing, the case notes of a detective, etc.

Although my experience reading The Cat and the City is mostly positive, there were a couple of things that I had an issue with. Firstly, there were a number of words that were purposely left in Japanese throughout the text (but especially in the first few stories), although there was no need to. I understand that since the stories are set in Japan and most of the characters are Japanese it seems more natural for them to use certain Japanese words, but when there is an English equivalent (which was often used right after the Japanese word anyway), it seems rather redundant to me to use the Japanese word. Also, although I gather that most of the book’s readers might have an interest in Japan, not all of them will be acquainted with the Japanese language, so it might be quite bothersome and interrupting for them to encounter random Japanese words.

Secondly, even though Bradley created very solid characters and stories that covered a wide spectrum of personalities and interests, I still felt like I was reading Japanese characters written by a non-Japanese person. Of course, I understand that the author is not Japanese and this is to be expected, but I simply couldn’t shake off the feeling that quite often his characters would behave or speak in a way that felt a bit unnatural for a Japanese person.

Still, The Cat and the City is a very entertaining, unique and well-written book that is definitely worth reading, especially if you have an interest in Japan and its culture. As a debut work, it is quite promising and Bradley is definitely a writer I will be looking forward to read more of in the future.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.


One From the Archive: ‘The Forrests’ by Emily Perkins **

First published in September 2012.

The Forrests is Emily Perkins’ fourth novel. It opens with the Forrest family, with particular focus placed upon the middle daughter, Dorothy. The Forrest family – mother and father Lee and Frank, son Michael and three daughters, Evelyn, Dorothy and Ruthie – have just moved from ‘oh my god the hub of the world’ New York to quiet Auckland, New Zealand.

The novel begins in the late 1960s and spans the entire timescale of Dorothy’s life, from her seven year old self, through to motherhood and the trials of adult life. The Forrests’ family dynamic seems rather unsettled from the start, when Dorothy and Evelyn, not yet teenagers, ‘agreed that they hated their father’. When the family have finally gathered enough money to send their said father back to New York for reasons unbeknown to the reader, the remaining Forrests move to a ‘wimmin’s commune’. Here, a whole host of additional characters are met, some of them certainly more intriguing than others. Whilst at the commune, the girls help to weed the garden during the day and, at night they perfect ‘playing gin rummy and trying to be invisible’.

Fissures, small at the outset, shatter the family dynamic. This is apparent from many interwoven elements which contribute to the story, from the family owing money to debt collectors to Michael’s apparent need to move out, gaining his own space and being away from his family.

Whilst told in a relatively chronological order, The Forrests skips forward in time by several years from one chapter to the next. The reader is given no indication that the dates have changed, and the only clues that this is so can be found with regard to the suddenly altered ages of the children. Their story is consequently difficult to follow at times.

Perkins’ descriptions are vivid from the outset – cardboard smelt ‘sandy and soft’ and the path which runs alongside the Forrests’ house was ‘bulged and splintered with tree roots’. The natural world in the book, the wide open spaces which surround the children, are treated almost as a character in themselves. Much existential matter is given humanistic properties – ‘time breathed around him’, for example – a technique which works incredibly well. Perkins’ prose has been very well considered; indeed, it is often better than the story which unfolds around it.

A third person perspective has been used throughout, which distances the reader both from the characters and the story. It is difficult to build up sympathy for the family, as we never really get to know them well enough to do so. Dorothy’s entire life unfolds as the novel progresses, but the feeling of detachment towards her is still ever present. A first person narrative voice would have made this novel a wonderful one, but something about the omniscient third person perspective which Perkins has used just does not work.

The tenses are not always consistent, and the book does feel a little clumsy in consequence. The story is confusing at times, merely due to the sheer number of characters which have been introduced almost simultaneously. It is also rather difficult to deduce who is speaking in conversations which involve more than three characters, and such dialogue exchanges often have to be read more than once to be made sense of.

On the whole, far too many characters have been introduced throughout The Forrests, and there is no clear direction in mind. The story meanders without purpose in places, and although the writing is a definite strength, the characters and our perceptions of them often seem weak and underdeveloped. It feels as though Perkins has endeavoured to be far too ambitious and could not quite manage to make all of her ideas come to fruition in the end.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Apothecary’s Daughter’ by Charlotte Betts ***

First published in February 2012.

Charlotte Betts’ debut novel opens in 1665, a tumultuous time in which women were seen as ‘incapable’ of most things merely due to their gender. The Apothecary’s Daughter is set against the backdrop of the plague and the Great Fire of London in a period steeped in religious prejudices, greed, death and desolation. Enormous gulfs can be found throughout this seventeenth-century society, particularly with regard to the widening fissures between classes.

The Apothecary’s Daughter tells the story of 26-year-old Susannah Leyton, who works with her father Cornelius in an apothecary shop in Fleet Street, London. Having grown up in the shop, Susannah knows all of her father’s cures and is able to successfully help his patients cure their ailments. Susannah herself is relied upon to do a lot around the house. The family employ a maid but she still seems to help with a lot of the cooking, cleaning and running of errands. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she is able to read and knows several different languages. Her mother died in childbirth when Susannah was just fifteen years old and her only brother, Tom, lives in Virginia.

It soon becomes clear that Cornelius Leyton wishes to marry again. He chooses a young widower, Arabella Poynter, who has three children of her own. They soon install themselves into the small house above the shop. This decision leaves Susannah in turmoil, believing that her life will change drastically and distraught at the thought that her mother might be replaced.

Plantation owner Henry Savage, recently returned from Barbados, soon catapults into Susannah’s life and proposes to her. She declines at first, but soon finds herself part of an unhappy marriage. There are rather a lot of characters within the novel, but they are relatively easy to keep track of. There are constant clashes between them, the majority of ruptures caused by Susannah.

Betts’ characters all have their own flaws – Cornelius is cowardly, Susannah is headstrong and sometimes rude, and Arabella is unfair and opinionated. Whilst this does make the characters seem more realistic, it feels as though too much is made of Susannah’s flaws. She is incredibly sensitive, stubborn and obstinate throughout the novel. Almost everything that is said to her, whether kind or unkind, seems to cause her upset, and she is constantly furious with those around her. The reader does feel some sympathy with regard to her situation, but our patience with regard to her character does wear a little thin at times.

Throughout The Apothecary’s Daughter, Susannah desperately tries to overcome the fact that she is a woman living in such a patriarchal society. Once she leaves home, she is unable to continue her work in the male dominated apothecary trade, and is consequently forced into employment as a ‘companion’ for the elderly eccentric Agnes Fygge. Susannah definitely grows up as the novel progresses. Betts charts her growing loneliness and heartache at the losses which begin to come increasingly close to home.

The Apothecary’s Daughter is split up into relatively short sections, each pertaining to a certain month between 1665 and 1671. Unfortunately, some of the dialogue does seem a little stilted in places. Although the vocabulary which Betts has used does fit well with the time period, very few of the characters seem to have distinctive voices. Several sections of the dialogue do not follow natural conversational patterns. Questions are often asked but not answered and sometimes answers to questions are ignored as the following dialogue veers off on a completely different tangent.

A third person narrative perspective has been used in The Apothecary’s Daughter, which focuses almost solely upon Susannah and her relationships with those around her. Whilst the narrative style of the novel helps to move the story along at a relatively good pace, it is lacking in a little depth. The reader would empathise far more with Susannah if the story were told in her voice.

Betts sets the scene incredibly well and really captures the atmosphere of seventeenth-century London. The story is historically accurate. Her writing style is reminiscent of both Elizabeth Chadwick and Philippa Gregory. The story and setting she has used are rather like Mary Hooper’s works. The novel does not contain anything overly remarkable in terms of its plot, but it is a good read nonetheless.

The Apothecary’s Daughter won the RNA New Writers Award 2011 and the YouWriteOn Book of the Year 2010. Its sequel, The Painter’s Daughter, will be released later this year.

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One From the Archive: ‘Secrets of the Tides’ by Hannah Richell ****

First published in May 2012.

Secrets of the Tides is Hannah Richell’s debut novel. It begins with a gripping prologue where an unnamed character launches herself into the Thames from a bridge. We do not know who she is, but her story and the reasons for it become apparent as the novel progresses.

Chapter one then moves to the present day. The character of Dora Tide is introduced, a young woman living in a flat in Hackney with her boyfriend Dan, an artist. The couple have recently found out that she is expecting a baby, a fact which Dora is increasingly unsure about. She feels incredibly guilty about the way in which her family has been ‘torn apart so completely’, a foreshadowing of a pivotal event in the lives of the Tides which the reader knows nothing about at first.

Chapter two then goes back sixteen years in time and focuses on Helen, Dora’s mother. Her sister Cassie, eleven years old when she is first introduced, is concentrated upon before Richell presents Richard, the father of the Tide girls. This past perspective sees Helen and Richard taking the girls to Clifftops to spend Easter with Richard’s parents, a family tradition.

Richard’s parents, Alfred and Daphne, reside at the romantically named Clifftops, a sprawling house set in the Dorset countryside. Clifftops was Richard’s own childhood home and he and his daughters adore spending time there. In comparison, Helen has a rather tempestuous relationship with Richard’s mother, a difficult woman who overrules the decisions which Helen makes regarding her children. Daphne seems to delight in undermining her daughter-in-law, causing Helen to feel like an insignificant cog in the wheel of the Tide family.

When Daphne and Alfred are killed in a car accident, the Tide family is prompted to move down to Dorset and call Clifftops their new home. Among other things, this move causes Cassie and Dora to grow closer together in some ways and further apart in others. Once they are settled in their new lives, one late summer day tears their entire world apart, fracturing the Tides irreversibly. Loss, grief and sadness are then woven throughout the book.

Richell portrays the family dynamic incredibly well. Flashbacks to earlier periods are woven throughout the story. The use of different time frames captured in the narrative adds another dimension to the story, allowing the reader to understand the complexities of the characters. As the title suggests, the Tide family is fraught with a wealth of secrets, all of which become apparent as the storyline unfolds.

A third person narrative perspective is used throughout, allowing Richell to focus on each character in turn. As their lives are all intrinsically linked, both by familial ties and events which occur throughout the book, this is a technique which works very well. Richell’s dialogue is a definite strength in the novel, and exchanges between her characters are reminiscent of real-life conversations.

The absorbing prose really helps the reader to understand the characters from the outset. So many details have been used to build up realistic personalities, particularly where Dora is concerned. Richell’s descriptions work well. They are informative and written ably, but in no way do they seem overdone.

Secrets of the Tides is an impressive debut and an engrossing novel. It is a sensitively written account which portrays the sheer complexities of one family as they grow and develop. The story itself is sad and unsettling in places. The characters grow, both physically and emotionally, both towards one another and apart. The unexpected twists and turns throughout make Secrets of the Tides one of the must-read debut novels of 2012.

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One from the Archive: ‘Shelter’ by Frances Greenslade ****

First published in May 2012.

Shelter takes place in Duchess Creek in British Columbia, Canada’s most westerly province. It begins during the 1960s and spans a period of several years. Shelter is told from the first person perspective of Margaret Dillon, known throughout as Maggie. The narrative is retrospective and the more sinister events of the novel are foreshadowed as it progresses.

The novel opens with Maggie stating that it was her older sister Jenny who urged her to document their story. The heartbreak of both sisters with regard to their abandonment by their mother, Irene, is clear from the start. Maggie tells us ‘we did not try to look for out mother. She was gone, like a cat who goes out the back door one night and doesn’t return… We let time pass, we waited, trusting her…’. She goes on to say that as her mother ‘was the constant in our lives, the certainty and the comfort’, neither she nor Jenny felt any reason to worry.

The girls’ father, Patrick, works at a local sawmill. His nickname is ‘Mr Safety’, and he is called it not just by his family but by his friends, who are ‘irritated by his careful checking and rechecking’. Patrick’s character is unsettled at times. He is plagued by what the Dillon family term ‘terrors… seizures of fear which took possession of his whole body when he was on the edge of sleep’. Seeing her almost as a ‘son’, Patrick teaches Maggie about survival in the wilderness. He teaches her how to construct a lean-to shelter whilst telling her ‘If you ever get lost, this is what you do first. You build yourself a little shelter’.

To the surprise and shock of the Dillons, Patrick is killed whilst at work and the family is forced to cope without him. Following his death, a chasm opens within the family. Maggie begins to see her mother as a distant figure: ‘she was not really my mother, but some beautiful woman with flushed skin going to have a nap in my mother’s bedroom’. Irene’s previously spirited character begins to unravel in consequence. She leaves the girls with the Edwards family in Williams Lake whilst she begins a job relatively far away. Unlike her popular sister, Maggie feels as though she never really fits with the Edwards, despite the warmth of wheelchair-bound Ted. When payments for the girls’ billet suddenly stop, nobody is able to discover where Irene has vanished to. Undeterred, Maggie sets out to find her and unravel the mystery of her sudden disappearance.

Shelter is rather an uncomfortable read at times. The entire novel is filled with dark incidents. These include shooting accidents, widespread alcoholism, the widespread isolation during the harsh Canadian winters, disability, coping with grief and loss and the wider concept of abandonment.

Greenslade’s descriptions are rich and are balanced well with the unfolding story. Jenny is described as a ‘powder blue beacon’ whose grief at the loss of their mother is ‘majestic and furious’. The natural environment which has prominence in the life of Maggie particularly, has been written about with true care on part of the author. Almost fairytale-esque elements are woven throughout the novel, particularly with regard to Maggie’s daydreams. Maggie’s narrative voice is consistently strong and she is a vivid character from the outset.

Greenslade has a real way with words and Shelter is certainly an accomplished novel. The abandonment of their girls and their gradual realisation of their mother’s whereabouts are realised sensitively and touchingly, and every single loose thread which appears in the novel is tied up well at the story’s end.

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