Cat Step, by Alison Irvine, is one of those rare stories that will appeal to readers looking for a compelling thriller and also those who enjoy delving deeper into how an author uses language and form to satisfy and linger. From beginning to end there is an underlying tension. Unlike so many popular thrillers, there is no middle of the book pause to catch breath before introducing a change of direction that will allow for a twisty denouement. Cat Step remains consistent, holding attention without compromising character traits and development. The story has an intriguing plot offering much to consider. The protagonist is a tenacious, if fallible, narrator.
Set in Lennoxtown, where long time residents know everyone else’s business, the tale is told by a young mother, Liz, who is looking back on a period in her life when she and her daughter, Emily, lived there. Within the first few paragraphs it is stated that this was a time for which some explanation will be needed when Emily asks questions. Liz must decide what she will and won’t tell her child.
Liz is a dancer who, for a time, earned good money working on cruise ships. It was here that she met her partner, Robbie. She travels to Lennoxtown because his grandmother has died and his brother – who now lives in Australia – has asked Liz if she will clear the old lady’s flat and prepare it for sale. Liz had been living with her mother in London and sees the request as an opportunity to get back on her feet after a difficult few years – and to find out more about Robbie, who grew up in Lennoxtown but rarely talked about the place.
Shortly after arrival, Liz makes a decision that will draw the attention of the locals and then the police. Social Services become involved and Liz’s parenting falls under scrutiny.
Emily is not an easy child to care for. She demands her mother’s attention, throwing violent tantrums if she does not get her way. Liz wants to be a good mother but struggles to cope with a child who will not give her space even for a casual, adult conversation. Without her mother to help, Liz has no option but to cope. She sometimes makes mistakes.
The author perfectly captures the difficult aspects of parenting – the reactions and choices made in the heat of a moment that cannot be admitted to for fear of opprobrium, or worse. Liz is trying her best to make the move to Lennoxtown work, considering if it could become more permanent. She finds a nursery for Emily and then a job for herself at a sheltered housing complex. Here she meets June, who briefly becomes her friend. What Liz has yet to discover is that the residents of the town gossip freely amongst themselves but will resist opening up to her.
The facts that gradually unfold are engrossing but the strength of the story is the depiction of Liz as a struggling, single mother who is perceived – sometimes by herself – as failing. Social Services must ensure that Emily is safe and nurtured, but their involvement adds to the stresses Liz must deal with.
She may be a troubled character but Liz is no walkover and far from a fool. Is there any parent who has never taken an occasional misstep when dealing with their cantankerous offspring? Most are simply not caught in the headlights of authority, condemned by neighbours. Liz’s reactions may at times be regrettable but her situation adjures empathy.
Have I emphasised enough how well written this book is? The prose is taut and understated, flowing and effortlessly engaging. It provides a story that deals with difficult and at times worrisome behaviour, with personal grudges manifesting in overt criticism of a young woman’s behaviour. A trenchant yet always gratifying read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink.