It gives me great pleasure to launch this wonderful, inspiring book, Cleo: How an uppity cat helped heal a family. Helen Brown, the author, is an amazing person. The first time we met, well . . . we just hit it off, swapping stories about our absent teenage daughters (at Howqua), and about our other lives outside and beyond the business of mothering . . . our writing lives, for example, for writing is one of the great bonds between us. When Helen asked me if I’d launch her book I was delighted. I love book launches. I attend as many as I possibly can. For what is more delightful than celebrating the creativity and achievement of dear friends? But I have to say I was also a bit intimidated by the request, as it seemed to me that Helen Brown should have some well-known media identity on the job rather than a staid Professor, for Helen is nothing less than a celebrity: a prize-winning journalist in New Zealand and a much-loved magazine and newspaper columnist. Now she is blazing a trail with this moving family memoir, Cleo. Released at the start of this month, within its first week Cleo slotted in at No. 5 on the NZ bestseller list, it is now No. 3, and it has also embarked on its second edition in Australia. Congratulations Helen . . . and well done to the team at Allen & Unwin.
Cleo tells the story of Helen’s first marriage in Wellington, a city famous for 2 things, she tells us – bad weather and earthquakes. Young and not altogether well-matched to her sailor husband Steve, Helen lives precariously with her two boys Sam and Rob in ‘a bungalow halfway down a zigzag on a cliff directly above a major fault line’. At the heart of this book lies the terrible tragedy of losing her eldest child Sam just after his 9th birthday, an accident witnessed by his younger brother Rob. This first part of the book vividly, movingly recreates Helen’s experience of undergoing this tragedy – the initial disbelief, the almost overwhelming horror of it all, the inconsolable self flattened by grief and sorrow. Of her sorrow, she writes with moving lyricism: ‘I longed for sorrow to shrivel and sail effortlessly into oblivion. If an autumn leaf could release the memory of summer and float into nothingness, fearless and with such grace, why was it impossible for me?’
In the early days of shock and loss, so fearful is the experience that Helen often appears as a spilt consciousness: ‘From a position high on the hall ceiling I watched myself wailing and screaming below’. This split consciousness, with one part spookily detached, reappears when the reality of loss has sunk in so deeply that Helen is tempted ‘to float away with it for eternity, smiling down on human drama like an amused zoo-keeper. The idea of shedding my body and escaping pain was suddenly attractive’. But the plan is foiled when the bathroom door opens a crack, and a single black paw runs down the gap. Suddenly, there is a small kitten mewing to be picked up! This is Cleo, the kitten chosen by Sam a week before his death and later delivered into the midst of this family’s grief and sorrow. It is the great achievement of Helen’s narrative to show us how the key to healing can lie in affection for small things: it was love for a kitten, she tells us, that helped her (and young Rob) embrace the world again. ‘Cleo was constantly springing out at us from behind doorways’, she writes, ‘reminding us life was too profound to be taken seriously’.
Gradually, as Cleo works her magic on Helen, the little cat convinces her that ‘it’s not healthy to look down on your life from a distance forever: it’s important also to look UP for inspiration’. Gone is the eerie, frightening, detached split consciousness; ‘Lift up thine eyes’ the good book tells us, and lift them up, Helen does, only to discover in the night skies over Wellington, not blankness, a ‘limitless nothing’, but a place of profound energies, a space unplumbed and mysterious and yet providing solace to those who seek for it. Looking up, Sam is, Helen says, ‘distant as the stars and yet an integral part of every breath’. And just in case you are beginning to get the impression that this is a philosophical book, these speculations about looking up and looking down are framed by one of the funniest incidents in the book – Helen’s futile attempt to ‘rescue’ Cleo from the top of a chimney pot, a mission which involves her scrambling perilously up a ladder and onto a high roof. Then comes her vertigo on looking down, and her descent into vomiting upon arriving at ground level. By this time Cleo has, of course, descended nimbly and long disappeared into the bushes.
Helen’s greatest gift, and the other key to her survival besides the cat Cleo, is her great sense of her humour. The drollery is there, even at the bleakest moments: the flowers of sympathy, for instance, which keep arriving with such remorseless regularity that it almost drives Helen out of her mind. For anyone observing this grieving household, she writes, it’d be hard to say who was the stranger: ‘the grieving woman who went hysterical at the sight of floral deliveries or the husband who hid them under bushes’. Other highlights are the Battle of the Bassinette, the birth of Lydia narrated through a haze of nitrous oxide, in which everyone is talking in Donald Duck voices and Helen thinks she’s giving birth to a kitten, the courtship with young Philip, who bristles with muscles, not a spare inch of fat anywhere, and the sudden realization by Helen, three-times a mother, that queen-sized sheets are the Western woman’s equivalent of the chador, ‘arranged to cover the entire body and head with just a slit from which the eyes can peer out’. ‘Gosh, these sheets have a mind of their own’, she tells Philip. Or the invented ‘sensitive to light’ eye condition, an implausible excuse for plunging the bedroom into such impenetrable darkness that the body becomes, not so much a temple as a garden for the blind.
Reading this book downstairs, with the kids upstairs doing their homework, at one point an alarmed Susanna rushed to the top of the stairs asking if I was ok because it sounded like I was weeping. I was actually roaring with laughter but I might well have been weeping, for this is a book that provokes both reactions, often within short compass. And reigning over all the ups and downs of Helen and her family—Philip, Rob, Lydia and Katherine—is Cleo, high priestess of some mysterious cult, a creature embodying ferocity and fearlessness, but also exquisite laziness, stretched out on the sofa, never over-exerting herself, turning lethargy into an art form. My favourite description of Cleo is the one in which, playing ‘sock-er’ (as Rob called it) she flattens herself and wriggles under the sofa in pursuit of a sock. It was like watching birth in reverse, Helen tells us, and the silence that followed was unnerving:
‘She was stuck under there. Seconds later, a single black paw appeared from behind the high back of the sofa. It was swiftly accompanied by another paw. With leverage from two sets of claws a face appeared, much narrower that the last time we’d seen it, the eyes half closed, the ears reduced to mere flaps flattened against its skull. Clamped victoriously between its thin lips was the sock.’
Brilliant! The description here of Cleo’s re-birthing is as vivid as a Disney cartoon. It is at moments like this that Cleo the book defies death by staring it down, a little bit as John Donne does in his well-known sonnet, so full of bravura:
‘Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so:
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me.’
At other times this memoir reminds us of what we all know so well, and that is that we all live in the shadow of death . . . the shadows cast by those, like Sam, who have gone before us, and the shadow of our own mortality. The fault-line invoked so humorously at the start of the novel is not so much geological as biological. Life, so precious, is also incredibly precarious, sometimes senselessly and brutally snatched away in the blink of an eye. Thus it is that, for Rob and for Helen, ‘Even though we laughed, worked and played, our grief was still real, unresolved in many ways and buried deep inside’.
Of the dead they rightly say: ‘Forever with us, forever gone’. What a paradox! And of course it is the paradox of memory—our memories of the dead are so vivid that they seem to be still living amongst us, and yet the very vividness only underscores the loss.
But for all the human sadness of this, the ending of Cleo is full of new beginnings, especially with the forthcoming marriage of Rob and Chantelle (what a thrill it was to have been there at their beautiful wedding in Daylesford earlier this year). On the last few pages we overhear the young couple debating what kind of kitten they are going to have, a discussion which neatly seals the book’s celebration of the uncanny, mysterious bond we share with animals. The connection between Rob and the feline goddess Cleo was a deep and lasting one -- as a kitten she had helped him sleep alone in his bedroom for the first time without Sam, and ‘spoken’ to him through his dreams . . .
Thank you Helen for writing such a sad, funny, vivid and consoling family memoir. I declare Cleo launched!