A Cat, A Hat and A Piece of String by Joanne Harris

This is the second collection of short stories (the first being Phillip Pullman’s retelling of the Grimm Fairytales) that the book club has done, but this one spanned many genres and subjects in its deceptively slim body: fantasy, realism, retellings, even horror. Even as everyone had their favourites, the two stories we agreed on were those starring Hope and Faith, the two indomitable residents of the Meadowbank Home. The opening story of the collection, River Song, was considered one of the less successful ones.

This led to a conversation about whether the ordering of the stories worked. For some people, it reinforced the sheer breadth and vitality of the writer’s imagination, and helped fire up their own. For others, it amplified the sense of reading snippets, rather than getting their teeth into a satisfyingly meaty narrative; a lack of amity with the short story genre magnified by the book’s ordering.

Which stories could have been extended? The two Aspects stories: Rainy Days and Mondays and Wildfire in Manhattan star characters already present in her full-length ‘Rune’ books. The stories involving Faith and Hope, as well as those about the nameless narrator we first meet in There’s No Such Place as Bedford Falls could also bear the weight of additional details and fleshed out back stories. But some of the others, such as Cookie, or The Game, derive their effectiveness from the horror of not letting the reader know, leaving them in the presence of multiple possibilities and ambiguities. What is that ‘thing’ Maggie holds? What actually is the game, and is the danger (and the fear of the attendant consequences) internal (addiction) or external (someone else manipulating addiction)? There were little details that jumped out at the reader: the station cafe from where the unnamed writer acquires his cat muse resonated with those who had encountered places like that, whereas the story Would You Like to Reconnect brought about a discussion about memorialisation in the digital age.

The covers of the American and British editions of the books differed substantially, a phenomenon we have noticed with a lot of the other books too. The American edition was brightly coloured, and seemed to feature the bench on which most of Dryad is told (lived?). The British edition was more sombre in its use of colours; even though it too featured a bench, it also featured a bird pecking at something just out of focus. This also led to a conversation about colours used on covers: bold gold type seemed to be associated with thrillers, as if signalling their ‘sensationalist’ content, whereas light (or white) covers weren’t encouraged because of their propensity to get soiled or marked easily in their physical editions, or merge into the background of most website designs in their digital formats.

Those who had read Joanne Harris’ work before (the three books in the series which started with Chocolat, as well as the Rune books) found flashes of her trademark style in this book too. Opinion was divided amongst those for whom this was an introduction to her work as to whether they would go on to read more.


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