sun 25/06/2017

Sunday Book: Lynne Truss - The Lunar Cats | reviews, news & interviews

Sunday Book: Lynne Truss - The Lunar Cats

Sunday Book: Lynne Truss - The Lunar Cats

Ambitious historical comedy featuring an evil kitten

Kitcom

Once they’ve died nine times, Lynne Truss’s evil talking cats become immortal. Whether Truss has such ambitions for the literary lifespan of her curiously addictive feline thrillers, this second outing, after 2014’s Cat Out of Hell, suggests a robust life-expectancy for an idea apparently sprung from a tiresomely persistent internet meme. In The Lunar Cats, we re-make the acquaintance of protagonist and widowed librarian Alec Charlesworth, hapless actor Wiggy, and feline mastermind Roger, on an adventure in the perilous universe of evil talking cats - featuring most bizarrely, this time, a foul-mouthed but irresistibly round-eyed kitten called Tetty.  

In good detecting tradition, Alec is assisted by a well-meaning but dull-witted companion called Watson, in this case a terrier with a fondness for frisbees, rather than a tweedy medical gent. The historical landscape of their journey, Lawrence Durrell’s Greece in Cat Out of Hell, this time becomes 18th-century London, and the literary scene surrounding the voyage of the Endeavour, famously the vessel of First Lieutenant James Cook (how much better he would sound as “Captain”, one of the cats wryly observes) and botanist Joseph Banks.

Less well-known is the role of writer Dr John Hawkesworth, fickle friend of Dr Johnson. In the 1760s Hawkesworth was a rising literary celebrity, but his sexed-up account of the Endeavour’s voyage, published in 1773, was considered so offensive, and its reception so damning, that Hawkesworth was dead within months. Truss embellishes this tantalising scholarship with her account of the society of Lunar Cats, apparently a feline elite dedicated to debating such urgent enquiries as the “chemical composition of the fur ball” and “the true place of yowling” in music, as well, in the case of Mr Timkins, who travels on the Endeavour, “a proposed solution to the Longitude Problem”.  

One reading of the byzantine and farcical plot is as satire on the sentimental delusions of cat owners

Truss combines a page-turning narrative with ambitious blending of historical and fictional sources, and the use of several narrators, one of whom (Mr Timkins the pseudo-intellectual ship’s cat) is highly unreliable. Timkins and the other lunar cats are joined by quite a gallery of fictional interpolations, including a lethal, nine-inch Tahitian idol called Oviri. A moderate tolerance of whimsy is required to enjoy (among many such juxtapositions) the mingling of historical excerpts from Cook’s journal with Timkins’ amusing delusions, and the narrative transitions from past to present and history to fantasy demand concentration.

In a recent interview, Truss (previously a dog owner) attributed the inspiration of her evil talking cats theme to her own adoption of rescue cats. Her faith in the canine cause never wavers, and her view of cats is ambivalent: one reading of the byzantine and farcical plot is as satire on the sentimental delusions of cat owners, driven to abject self-abasement by a callous and manipulative pet. Though Watson the terrier spends much of the novel as helpless victim of the lewd kitten, it is he, all true-grained doggy loyalty, who eventually thwarts the evil cats’ plan.

Some readers may find their patience tested by the story’s spiralling absurdity. The powers of an Isambard Kingdom Brunel are required to suspend disbelief in places, as pastiche cat diaries, spoof appointments with Beelzebub and comedy-gothic graveyard robbery are woven together somewhat giddily. Truss has researched the story of Hawkesworth and the journey of the Endeavour assiduously, devoting an appendix and bibliography to establishing her credentials, and the topic is fascinating, even though much of the 18th-century plot ultimately dissolves in farce.    

The Lunar Cats wears its learning lightly, and is best read tongue-in-cheek, enjoying the historical tangents for their effervescence and ingenuity, despite occasional lurches of tone. It should be approached as a kind of literary variety show, which just about holds together its moments of comedy, satire, and simmering historical thriller. Despite my cynical suspicions about the stocking-ready nature of a cat-themed historical thriller, this is seasonal entertainment of a superior kind. Who else but Truss could create as her own sub-genre the fusion of Sue Townsend and Horace Walpole?

@matthewwrighter

Truss combines a page-turning narrative with ambitious blending of sources

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