There is no Year of the Cat on the Chinese Zodiac, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett tells us, because (legend has it), “the cat slept through the meeting between the emperor and the animals and arrived too late to be assigned to the calendar”. No one who is familiar with cats will be surprised by this.
This is a book about cats: famous cats, religious cats, cats in mythology, the cats of artists and authors, and, naturally, Cosslett’s own cat Mackerel, adopted as a kitten in the spring of 2020. It is also a book about lockdown – the pain, grief, terror and occasional unexpected joy of those pandemic months. It is about Cosslett herself: her childhood in Wales caring for her autistic brother, her time in Paris, and the traumas that she acknowledges have shaped her life. And it is a book about motherhood, or rather, the complex, knotted, contradictory concept of motherhood as seen through the eyes of a woman in her early thirties desperately trying to work out what she wants.
How this can all be swept up and reimagined as a 300-page book about cats is impossible to explain. There is a narrative, of sorts; we meet Cosslett at the start of lockdown convincing her dubious husband that they should get a kitten to share their north London flat, and leave her just over a year later, having successfully navigated the emotional turmoil of Mackerel getting into a particularly dangerous string-eating incident. Interwoven through the accounts of solitary walks, socially distanced coffees, al fresco dining and Covid-secure festivities that we all remember, other storylines ebb and flow – although perhaps “storylines” is not the right word. They are snapshots, diary-like, of a life before the pandemic jumbled up in a way that at first seems utterly random. Yet the more you read, the more this tangle of disparate threads begins to knit into one. Part coming-of-age tale, part processing mechanism for her post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s a memoir the author admits she was only able to write when freed from the restrictions of chronology.
As a journalist and columnist for the Guardian, Cosslett has covered all manner of painful subjects, from sexual violence to the suffering of disabled people in care homes. Her previous books include a politically charged novel set against the backdrop of the 2011 London riots and a tongue-in-cheek guide on how women are portrayed in the media.
And yet, while these themes surrounding feminism and class re-emerge, The Year Of The Cat is an altogether different category of writing. The book is raw, almost clinically confessional, and no doubt some readers will consider it self-indulgent. But the author is skilled enough, lyrical and direct by turn, to offer something relatable in her unflinching scrutiny of her experiences. There are wider social truths exposed in the reflections on being cat-called in Paris, on meeting a friend’s new baby with a bewildering mixture of delight and envy, and on that desire to both escape and come home.
And through it all, there are cats, both real and symbolic – representing cultural expectations of femininity through the ages. “Witches, of course, were the original crazy cat ladies,” Cosslett writes, in one of the many historical interludes. Detailed descriptions of Mackerel’s lockdown antics – climbing a wardrobe, learning to purr – are collaged with feline titbits: Audrey Hepburn is depicted with a cat on her shoulder on a billboard for Breakfast At Tiffany’s; the posters the artist Tracey Emin put up for her lost cat were stolen and sold. It turns out that cats often feature in paintings of the Annunciation, placed alongside Mary as she learns from the angel Gabriel that she is to have a baby.
Cosslett is not subtle about what she is doing: using her relationship with cats to work through her anxieties about parenthood. “I did not know that you could love a cat so much. I did not expect it,” she writes early on. Later: “I have kept the cat alive for almost a year” – a fierce insistence to herself that nourishing another creature is something she can do, should she choose it.
Will it resonate beyond the realm of self-professed damaged female writers hesitating over their fitness to be mothers? I hope so. Reclamation of crazy cat ladies aside, what Cosslett so beautifully captures is that liminal period before any life-changing decision, when anguished uncertainty morphs into sudden resolve. At some point in their lives, I think almost everyone has had their own Year of the Cat.
The Year of the Cat: A Love Story
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
Tinder Press, 320pp, £18.99
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[See also: What to read in 2023: fiction]
This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege