Sunday, 30 October 2011

On Reading: The Cat Sanctuary by Patrick Gale

I had the privilege of a tutorial with Patrick Gale a few years ago, while taking a Diploma in Creative Writing at Oxford University, and I have always enjoyed his novels. He manages to combine both edginess and compassion and has a deep understanding of the true dynamics of family life. So when I was looking for a novel to take away to Sri Lanka recently I was happy to pick up this one, which I had not read before. It tells the story of two sisters, Judith and Deborah, who have grown apart as adults and don't seem to like each other very much. The accidental assassination of Deborah's husband and intervention of Judith's lover, Joanna, brings the two sisters back together as Deborah comes to stay temporarily with Judith and Joanna at their shared home in Cornwall. Judith is a successful novelist struggling with the writing of her latest novel and she also helps out at a local cat sanctuary run by the elderly and somewhat eccentric Esther Gammel. The sub-plot relating to Esther's life and the metaphor of the cat sanctuary itself form the backdrop to the working out of the complex relationship between the two sisters and their lovers: Judith's partner Joanna and the new man who comes into Deborah's life, Harvey Gummer. But it is the traumatic events in Judith and Deborah's shared childhood that are the cornerstone of the book. The chapters are structured in the alternating voices of the three main characters, which is especially effective as the plot unfolds. In another significant sub-plot Joanna teaches Deborah to drive and it is ultimately Joanna who is able to gently point out to Judith and Deborah that what happened to them when they were children was not their fault in any way. This novel is not an easy read but it is a book that is ultimately redemptive and shows a deep understanding of the psychological effects of a damaged childhood. This is one of Patrick Gale's great strengths and all the more so because this novel was written when he was only 28.

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