Neighbourhood Watch: A Review Of Alison Irvine's Cat Step...
There’s always something extra in a novel for a reader when it’s set in their hometown. It goes back to Alasdair Gray’s call to arms, (with reference to Glasgow), in his 1981 novel Lanark that “[…] if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.” That’s as relevant today as it always was, but as a city changes it’s important that it is continuously reimagined to reflect the transformation. Alison Irvine’s Cat Step does just that, taking us to parts of Glasgow, and depicting the lives of people, all too rarely found in fiction. But even if you’re not from that city there’s plenty to enjoy.
Set mostly in Lennoxtown, a town at the foot of the Campsie Fells, Cat Step introduces us to narrator Liz and her daughter Emily who have travelled north to take care of family business in a place small enough to notice new faces, and where news - good, bad, and fake - travels fast. Liz and Emily are involved in an incident which casts doubt on Liz’s fitness as a parent. From this single event their lives become increasingly difficult and complex as they have to cope with the past and consider the future, and the present is about just surviving.
Although the lives of others are vividly described, this is Liz's story, with her inner dialogue completely believable as she tries to balance the judgement and dangers from other people with her doubts and fears for herself, and tries to work out what is the best course of action for Emily. Her situation is a challenge, the latest in a series which appear to be an inescapable chain reaction which begins when life takes a terrible turn for the worse, and her future, which appeared to offer so much, is changed forever. Her confusion and disbelief at what is happening to her is all too relatable, a mix of paranoia, self doubt, anger, and confusion - all of which causes her judgement to be impaired as she struggles to work out who she can trust, if anyone.
The reason this rings true is as much about the supporting characters as it is with Liz. There are no clear cut heroes and villains here, everyone has shades of grey, and often troubled pasts which feed into their present and clouds the future. Every so often Liz sees the possibility for happiness before it is snatched away once more. Her background in dance, which gives the novel its name, allows her a form of acceptance in the community and also brief respite from her troubles, but new relationships bring their own complications, and she soon learns that this is a place where everyone knows everyone else's business, and if they don't they'll make it up anyway fuelled by rumour and gossip.
Cat Step is a thriller but one set in the everyday, and which is all too believable in the way it depicts a life unravelling despite a person trying to do their best, while having to cope with grief, guilt, and the death of their dreams. But the thing that stays with you once you finish Cat Step is the characters and their humanity – flaws and all, particularly with regard to Liz, Emily, and June who becomes a (grand)mother figure and friend, despite hiding her own secrets and a genuine fear of the past. Cat Step catches you unaware – you are only a few chapters in before you realise you are completely invested not only in the people, but also the place. It’s rare to make readers care in the way Alison Irvine does.
A version of this review first appeared in SNACK Magazine