During lockdown, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, like many others, got a cat, and her memoir recounts the first year of feline ownership, interlaced with excavations of the author’s past. At first, the premise seems twee. Only cat people will be onboard with descriptions of little Mackerel the kitten’s cuteness. But the acquisition of a pet is really just a conceit for Cosslett to explore much deeper issues around womanhood and society.
The author invites us to consider why a woman might retire from the world, “retreat from a game that felt rigged against us” in terms of the unfairness, judgment and abuse women and girls encounter in their relationships, work lives, everyday activities and family dynamics. She makes a powerful argument for the way a pet can create a feeling of stability in an unequal and often atomised society and work culture. Her observations are sharp and accurate, and I was far more gripped by her bleak clarity on these contemporary problems than on the details of the cat’s efforts to excrete the piece of string it ate.
The book is also a testament to the way time, apparently spent doing nothing during lockdown, actually opened a space for trauma and memory to come up and out, providing an opportunity, however painful, for working through things, then living and thinking differently. We learn, in frank disclosures, that Cosslett was the survivor of a truly shocking and horrifying murder attempt some years ago. The rolling repercussions of this, the fear and trauma, the triggered reactions that followed for years afterwards, make for painful reading. The book is all the more powerful for the author’s simplicity of style. She writes, with admirable directness: “I wonder how many of the world’s ‘crazy cat ladies’ have been victims of male violence. Do they identify with the stray, wounded animals they take in, the ill-treated creatures that live on the margins? Or is it that they have lost their faith in humans?”
In this light, getting a cat is not some fey affectation, but part of a brave process of healing and self-reconstruction, and The Year of the Cat is not simply a tale of violence, post-traumatic stress disorder and recovery. Cosslett also touches on her relationship with her mother, her role as a daughter and sister, her emerging independence and her developing sense of vocation as a writer. She had been a carer for her autistic brother, and her family memories build up a layered picture that connects various histories into a nuanced character portrait – just with added fur balls.
The book is not then so much a cosy ode to cats and cat ladies as an honest examination of Cosslett’s traumatised yet resilient self: “At times it has felt like care work is my destiny, and that, ever since I left home, my desire to write has been a way of resisting that.” Though owning Mackerel may have partially healed the author through precisely the kind of caregiving (and acceptance of reciprocal affection) that she once resisted.
But the tone of the book is far more equivocal, more haunted and ambivalent than such a simplistic conclusion. Looking after a defenceless animal often exacerbates, rather than soothes, Cosslett’s anxiety and shaky confidence, and it leads her to torture herself about her ability to nurture another. While the kitten may be cute, it forces the author to look into her own past, make peace with the present and face the future. Sit with her sober memoir – and be rewarded by its happy ending.
• The Year of the Cat: A Love Story by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is published by Headline (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply