19th June 2022, Tottenham
I’m slowly starting to catch up on reading the massive backlog I have of review copies sent to my “official UK postal address” during my time spent in Canada. This 2020 novel by Alison Irvine was published by Dead Ink, and turned out to be a breathtaking exploration of grief, loss, parenting and self-improvement.
Liz is a youngish woman, bringing up a five-year-old daughter alone as her partner, the child’s father, is dead.
Years on and still unable to move past this bereavement, Liz agrees to take a break from living with her own mother in London and spend a few months in Lennoxtown, a small town just north of Glasgow. This is where Liz’s deceased partner, Robbie, grew up (they met working on cruise ships; she a dancer, he a personal trainer) and Liz is there to help Robbie’s brother sell off their grandmother’s (also dead) possessions and apartment, as the brother lives in Australia and has no other living relatives in the UK other than his five-year-old niece (and thus the close connection to Liz).
Liz is not doing well – riddled by regret for the dancing and performance career she paused due to pregnancy, only to find that hiatus indefinite when she lost her partner and never really dealt with the grief. Used to the – tbf pleasing – anonymity of London and suddenly confronted with the cloying busybodies of a small town (and the trad social conservatism that often creates, at least it does in the UK), Liz ends up under near-constant surveillance from the local social services, struggles to find work beyond giving one dancing class a week for local pensioners, and starts her first sexual relationship since Robbie with a local plasterer who very much misrepresents how “separated” he is from his “ex”.
All of this combines to sound like the book might be quite harrowing, or bleak, even, and though the subplot in the second half of the novel (during which Liz discovers the circumstances of Robbie’s decision to leave the town and thus why he and his brother have no friends there any more) doubles down on this hopelessness further, Cat Step never feels unrelenting, never feels like it’s trying to provoke or shock with its depictions of less-than-ideal living conditions.
Liz is not a shell or a shadow, and though she is failing to deal with the loss of a loved one, she is not a passive figure being let down by a cruel world. When she chooses to be, she is forthright and assertive and – other than Robbie’s death – responsible for her minor fuck-ups and able to acknowledge this responsibility. Irvine has effectively created a character here who is neither victim nor villain, who is a very real-feeling person dealing, badly, with extreme feelings of sadness.
I enjoyed this book, and what I particularly liked was the way it toyed with expectations of this kind of realist/”kitchen sink” type narrative – here, yes, sometimes bad things happen, but they are not the worst things in the world, this is not a narrative or a life without hope.
Liz is not an allegory for the state of the nation after a decade of increasingly cruel Tory government, and nor is she a right wing stereotype of “undeserving poor”: this is neither tragedy nor comedy, like life itself. Irvine’s novel is articulate and human, clear and felt. Great stuff!
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