In a Nutshell: Soothing Music for Stray Cats turns out to be an absolute gem of a novel. Fresh, invigorating, engaging – and coming with one of the most triumphantly realised characters out there – Joso’s novel stands as a prime example of why readers should never shy away from the literary creations of new writers, especially those attached to the smaller independent publishers.
It’s been a while since I finished reading Soothing Music for Stray Cats (Alcemi) – in fact it was the end of September last year when I first put down my forethoughts for it – but thankfully it’s a novel that’s really stuck in my head (don’t you just love books like that? :)). So long overdue, it’s time to offer up my final afterthoughts on this debut novel from the Welsh-
born borrowed (see Jayne’s response in comments below) author.
As I said above I’ve already written up some forethoughts on Soothing Music for Stray Cats which provide a bit of background info both on the novel and its author. But just to recap, Soothing Music for Stray Cats follows thirty-something Mark Kerr as he makes the rash decision to head off to London, following the funeral of his friend Jim Jakes, who recently committed suicide. Still very much suffering from the affects of grief and guilt, Mark works at reacquainting himself with the London that he once knew, while at the same time seeking ways of coming to terms with his inner sorrow.
Mr. Nice Guy!
The novel itself is presented in the first-person, narrated by its main character Mark Kerr, who I think is sensationally realised. How a female writer can construct such a credible and deep-running male character is beyond me, but create him Joso has, and he stands as her unequivocal ‘master stroke’ as far as this novel is concerned.
The cover blurb promises a novel ‘flooded with warmth and humanity’ and that’s what the reader gets, with Mark very much being the source from which much of that flood emanates. As the snake-charmer’s pungi captivates the snake, so the warmth and humanity of Joso’s main character charms the reader, and he/she can’t help but make an endearing connection with him. And with that connection that Joso has so cleverly engineered, also comes the other primary theme of the novel – empathy and compassion, as the reader invariably begins to fight Mark’s corner, as he battles to come to terms with the death of his friend, and the gnawing feelings of personal guilt; guilt brought about by the sense that he wasn’t there for his friend in his greatest hour of need.
Through Mark’s actions and gestures one soon learns just how friendly and benevolent he is. And while it may be said that this congenial nature is perhaps the result of Mark in some way compensating for his guilt – by bestowing kindness on others – Joso subtly paints a different story; showing Mark to be inherently kindly to begin with. And this only makes the reader feel all the more compassionate towards the novel’s ‘hero’, and the emotional roller-coaster ride he finds himself on.
Now, I suppose I’ve made Soothing for Stray Cats sound as though it’s all doom and gloom, but actually, for the most part, the novel is rather uplifting. One may find that Joso pops the feel-good balloon late on in the novel, bringing the reader crashing back down to earth with a hard bump, but the everlasting memory is one of reassuring optimism. I would say, if you’re looking for a fast-moving, action-packed read, then Soothing for Stray Cats definitely isn’t it. It’s one of these ‘slow burn’ novels where the storytelling is unhurried and considered; rather philosophical at times – especially in relation to literature and music – but even with these slightly more high-brow elements, the novel never feels uptight or stuffy.
Befriending the ‘musketeers’
Moving back to the uplifting element of Soothing for Stray Cats, and perhaps the most heartwarming part of the novel for me, must be in the friendship that Mark builds with three young tearaways, known affectionately as the ‘three musketeers’. Mark stumbles across them quite by chance, while on a mission to visit Nelson (the column), and to hopefully track down Mr. Benn (yep the guy from the classic BBC children’s show – don’t ask :)), and they are not slow in slinging verbal abuse his way. However, while a lesser man may well walk away somewhat scared and intimidated, Mark refuses to be ruffled by the gang’s showy performance. He counters their caustic comebacks with humour and wit, while all of the time showing an undeserved amount of respect for the bolshy youngsters. His perseverance pays off. Over time he wears them down (to a point), and discovers – as he thought all along – that they aren’t quite as bad as they make out. What a triumph, a real ‘heartwarmer’ to bear witness to, and it’s not the only cosy moment that can be found in the story.
So given Soothing Music for Stray Cats short length (199 pages), I think I’ve said all that I can about it without revealing too much. So we’ll move on to the question of whether this debut novel from Jayne Joso is a literary ‘smoother’, or nothing more than a book-shaped missile to launch at stray cats? Well I’m happy to say that my copy of Soothing Music for Stray Cats won’t be taking any airborne journeys anytime soon, because it is very much the former; a deliciously warm and flavoursome novel, which I think will appeal to almost all readers.
I think, in Jayne Joso we have a fresh and exciting writer to look forward to, and I welcome her to the fictional arena with great enthusiasm (I could have said I’m ‘jumping for Jayne’ but I think that’s an unfunny pun too far :)).
Alcemi | 01 May 2009 | £9.99 | PAPERBACK | 199 PP | ISBN: 9780955527258