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Book Review: A Year of Cats and Dogs by Margaret Hawkins

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Maryanne has had a difficult year. Her boyfriend of 10 years, Phillip, has just left her as she edges towards her fiftieth birthday. She deals with the transition by throwing the I Ching, and leaving her job as ‘poetry’ writer at Keepsake Cottage, a firm that specialises in kitschy collectibles. Objectively speaking, Maryanne's life appears sad and empty as she spends her days bathing and walking her pet dog Bob and cat Clement, but the animals close in to keep her from being lonely as she begins to withdraw to an inner space where she can work out her destiny.

Externally, the storyline of A Year of Cats and Dogs stays where it begins, in the first person narrative of Maryanne. Her journey is a quiet, unflashy one that begins to unfold when she realises she has the odd gift of understanding the language of animals, particularly the dogs she comes in contact with. Maryanne is an everywoman at mid-life, as she finds herself alone and without a support network aside from her two pets, but what sets her apart and draws the reader to her is her introspection and refusal to put on any artifice. Instead, she begins to shed those roles that make no sense to her, like her ex-partner's clothing, and opens herself up to the more subtle sounds and rhythms of life.

This includes paying attention to the wisdom of the I Ching, The Chinese Book of Changes that forms Cats and Dogs' structure. Each of the book’s 64 chapters is prefaced by one of the possible I Ching coin throws, and is used to chart Maryanne’s interior transformations and a series of key verbs that guide the action within that chapter. The book begins with being “alert to the Creative”, and that is probably one of the key themes of the book. From a kind of passive acceptance of what comes her way, Maryanne begins with opening her eyes and carefully waiting for some guide to the creativity she feels must underpin her life. It’s a sharp contrast to the burden of busyness that fills most modern lives, as characterised by her friend Donna:

What if that was all I or anyone was really required to do? Pay attention. Be kind. Do no harm. What if the yogis and the poets, the real ones not the plate poets, were right and the dreamy dozing dogs were the yogis of correct living? It sounded easy, a matter of taking walks and going to museums, releasing me, us all, from the tyranny of achievement and the pursuit of wealth, released us all from Donna’s plan to change the world. What if right living was what it took to change the world? (92)

Modesty and patience are part of Maryanne's charm as her gift for dog whispering/listening leads her to a job as a full time assistant to Stan, the Vet at a local dog shelter. Stan doesn’t quite understand Maryanne, but he is increasingly drawn to her as she discovers that some of the dogs at the shelter have their own gifts, one of which is the identification of human Cancers. Maryanne's growth is a slow and subtle one, but no less powerful, even as she works through a series of losses, surprises, and a career/life transformation that happens as organically as her relationship with Stan. Throughout the book, as Maryanne works through the I Ching, she provides recipes to help with life’s transitions. These are real, usable recipes with names like Chicken Soup for the Sad, Dog Party Pasta, Chili for Consolation, and My Father’s Corn Chowder. The recipes, like Maryanne and the story, are unpretentious and take a little time to simmer, but they are good and powerful in their way.

Like the recipes, A Year of Cats and Dogs is a surprisingly powerful read. Though it’s quick and easy, and the reader might end up wondering whether anything happened at all, on reflection, Maryanne’s journey is one that all modern folk might benefit from taking. It’s a journey that involves shedding the daily grind of doing in favour of time to take long baths, long walks, to observe and listen. A Year of Cats and Dogs is funny and spiritual in the most pragmatic sense – a satisfying, and pleasurable read.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.