Review – “The Wild Road”, Gabriel King

11/06/2013 at 20:16 (Reviews, Writing) (, , , , , , , )

The Wild Road, co-authored by Jane Johnson and M. John Harrison under their collaborative pseudonym Gabriel King, is essentially the Watership Down of cats. Described by William Horwood, the bestselling author of Duncton Wood, as “an enthralling epic of a tale”, it is a novel filled with feline politics and mysticism, historical reference and reflections on identity. Narrated almost exclusively through the eyes of Tag, the young Burmilla protagonist, it is as much a bildungsroman as reverential catalogue of what makes up your feline friend’s world.

The story begins with an innocuous-enough line: “The one-eyed black cat called Majicou sat between a rusting cage and two sacks of stale grain on a shelf at the top of a shop on Cutting Lane.” It still resonates down the years to me, from that 1997 book signing I happened upon at Kensington Olympia, attending my third Grand National Cat Show with my father. It was our habit to wander the stalls set up with all feline-related wares, opposite the show bench and cages filled with every breed imaginable. Only 12 at the time, I had no idea of the significant impact this book would have on me – on my own writing – when the authors smiled, and signed my copy’s interior.

They might well have fitted their own cats – “Iggy”, a young Burmilla (framed as the protagonist, Tag) and “Finn”, a beautiful Norwegian Forest queen (reshaped as the King of Cats) – with cameras. Such is the attention to detail in the narrative, no blade of grass is left unstirred without remark; the smallest experience is caught and refracted through the mind and body of the kitten narrator we come to inhabit (“Up and down the room rushed Tag, clapping his front paws in the air. He loved the movement. He loved the heavy warmth of the air. Everything was exciting. Everything was golden. The iridescence of each bubble was a brand new world, a brand new opportunity. It was like waking up in the morning.”) And as each experience is dialled down to the acute senses of the cat, so we too come to know what it means to live so close to the ground, so attuned to the world, which often bypasses the human existence: “He heard them burst, in a way a human being never could, with a sound like tapped porcelain.”

Tag is a cossetted kitten, about to be sent on a quest to save the world. Not only the world of the cat, or that of the urban fox he comes to know as friend and mentor (“Loves a Dustbin” will forever remain one of my favourite fictional names), or the world of the wild creatures he learns to run alongside on the wild ghost roads of Earth energy – but the world of men. For it is a man who has brought to pass unnatural changes in the wild roads, causing them to erupt strange, twisted versions of cats – sorry little ghosts, with empty eyes and laboratory stitching. They hunt Pertelot Fitzwilliam of Hi-Fashion, an Egyptian Mau, whose dreams are haunted by the country of her ancestors (“‘In Egypt they mourned Her three days,'” she began in a febrile, sing-songy voice. “‘If she would not wake, they took her to the Canopic room …”‘ She looked around her suddenly. “‘I was never in Egypt,”‘ she said puzzledly.”) Pertelot is the Queen of Cats, bred by the Alchemist as The Mother – creator of the Golden Cat, which itself will hold the key to the natural world.

It is the task of the Majicou – ancient keeper of the animal highways and a cat on his final life – to protect the Mau. In doing so, he will snare Tag, pulling him out of his comfy home and into the wild environs he must learn to negotiate. We are with the growing kitten every paw-step of the way, as he becomes part of an unlikely fellowship of animals set against the Alchemist’s plans. That this group is made up of a surly magpie (“One for Sorrow”, of course), a fox, and a band of feral cats, is testament to the severity of the situation. Suspicion between the species often flares, and serve as a firm reminder that what we are dealing with are animals, outside of human social mores and etiquette.

That being said, the camaraderie between the group is made apparent through their own brand of animal socializing, in the style of the rabbits of Watership Down – “The magpie had returned to his perch, and seemed to be orchestrating the party. The fox chased the tabby round in a circle. The tabby chased him back the other way. The Mau watched like a cat carved in a pyramid … Ragnar was demonstrating for Mousebreath some move he believed to be specific Norsk Skaukatt… These events seemed odd but full of joy.”

The story is essentially Tag’s, set in a modern London lovingly painted through a cats-eye view (“It was about half a mile along the Caribbean Road, in the direction of the Fantastic Bridge…the sign on the front read (if you could read): Burgess Supermart and Deli. Tag had made his way through the morning foot-traffic, creeping along between a pavement and a wall, crouching and veering to avoid pram wheels here, the grasping hands of a toddler there.”)

Yet the novel takes the reader beyond any average animal adventure, with its referencing of both mythical and historical events, which have intertwined the fates of feline and man. Framed in the mythical nine lives of the cat, these enchanting segments are interspersed between Tag’s chapters (or those of other characters, when the party become separated) in order to flesh out the world these two powerful races have inhabited together over the centuries. The first “life” in particular, reads as a reformed Genesis (“At last, the first sound broke the silence. Rhythmic and insistent, charged and vital. Every corner was filled with awe and comfort, comfort and awe – But there were no cats yet to know the glory that was the first purr.”) These sections are at once reverential, humourous and damning, with references ranging from the medieval burning of cats, to their mummification in ancient Egypt (“It wasn’t long before the priests found a way to profit from that. Cats began to go missing… with a smart tap to the neck, helped them on their journey to the other world… Sometimes they can love you too much.”) In this way, history is replayed through the eyes of the cat, adding context for the reader to understand present events. In one life, the Alchemist (or rather, his cat, Hobbe) is alluded to being the catalyst of the Great Fire of London.

The Alchemist, it has to be said, is one of the most grisly antagonists I have ever encountered in literature – merciless as a grinning skull, and freakishly deformed in his pursuit of the ultimate knowledge of the cat: “In one hand, the Alchemist held a closed brass vessel streaming smoke. In the other, a short thick staff devised from the mummified foreleg and paw of some large black animal. Weird light flared off the eyepieces of his mask. Around him broke a tide of cats.” Since the novel is published under speculative fiction, allusions to Sir Isaac Newton and his pursuit of immortality towards the story’s middle, can be seen as a progression of narrative, and not doctoring of fact.

Even the staccato jumpiness of the dialogue/Tag’s internal monologues, add to the feline flavour (“‘Eat a bee,”‘ he thought. He thought, “‘Eat more than one.”‘) When framing the animals’ speech, the authors rarely progress further than simple sentence structure – a clever play on the snapshot world inhabited by each species, with constant referencing to every vital sense that keeps them alive.

The Wild Road is a grim story in places, and not for the faint of heart. Delivered with a whiskery promise of other worlds, ancient and modern, the reader is allowed a tentative step upon those ghost-populated animal highways. It’s an immersive read, convincing as it is influential. I still feel the hairs on my neck prickle as I watch a cat nonchalantly disappear into the grey shadows at the bottom of our garden. I find myself wondering how far they will travel, through the night.

My battered old copy lies beside me now. Its pages are well-thumbed with a growing girl’s desperate need to learn more of the strange other-world, which remains intriguing and influential to this day.

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Product details
Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: Arrow Books Ltd; paperback / softback edition (6 Nov 1997)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0099242524
ISBN-13: 978-0099242529

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