Blitzcat by Robert Westall

(8.6/10) Hope in cat astrophic times

I first encountered blitzcat as a teenager, working my way through all of my school library's books on tape. I've never been a huge fan of war stories, but there was something compelling about Robert Westall's book, and of course though I'm probably rather more canine than feline inclined, I do enjoy books about animals, especially where we get matters from the animal's own perspective without straying into the cutesy. Cutesy indeed Blitzcat certainly is not, indeed even at thirteen, the thing I noticed most was just how dark a story it is. Now of course, knowing a lot more about life and people and being a fan of dark stories, (well it's in the name), I picked up Blitzcat for a second reading, and if anything enjoyed it even more.

The year is 1940, and Britain is at war with Germany. Young men leave in their thousands to join the armed forces, whilst women and old men try to keep the home fires burning despite the deepening atmosphere of dread, as much afraid of the knock on the door and the black edged telegram, as of the Luftwaffe bombing raids or the threat of German invasion.

Lord Gort however, a black cat named for a British general, doesn't know or care about the war. What she knows is her person is gone far away, and that she's had to move from her comfortable house in Devon to this strange new country village in Dorset, full of evacuee children and sad, frightened people. With feline contrariness she decides the only thing to be done is to go and find her person, though bombs, barbed wire and all the hysteria of a country under threat of war lie in the way.

I will admit that over the past few years, I've grown a little tired of the second world war as a setting. Though depictions for the most part steer clear of the blatantly nationalistic bombast of the fifties and sixties, these days, probably because most of the generation who lived through the war are now no longer with us, there does seem to be an odd, almost nostalgic recollection of war time Britain as a friendly little community where everyone mucked in and did their bit and showed off the "good old Blitz spirit." But not here.

Westall's depiction of war time Britain is tense, harried and fraught with emotion. Right from the start when an officious Ministry of Defence man cross examines the harried Florence Wensley as to why she's sending telegrams about Lord Gort (looking a fool when he realises she means the cat not the general), there is a palpable sense of pervading fear. Everyone is under the highest amounts of stress, whether a group of women spending a frantic night in a Dover café during an air raid, swapping rumours and half-truths that German troops had already landed, or the ever pervading threat of violence when starving and desperate refugees are forced from their bombed out homes.

Far from sugar coating for a child audience, or covering up the full impact of war, Westall if anything emphasises just how fraught and disorganised the situation is. In a wonderful bait and switch, compared to the worried perspectives of the human characters, Lord Gort's view of things is vividly immediate. She has no special powers, neither does she think or react as a human, or even as part of an overall feline or animal culture. She is a cat, with the wants, needs and desires of a cat, plus the scientifically unproven, but still relatively well documented phenomenon of psi trailing, in which an animal can find its way to a human partner or family across vast distances.

Yet, Westall is as profoundly honest with Lord Gort's experiences as he is with those of his human characters, and just as we understand why a woman might panic when a policeman knocks on her door, fearing he bears bad news, so we sympathise with Lord Gort when the domesticated house cat's efforts to catch a wild rabbit go badly wrong. Indeed, it is amazing that often the tragedies Westall focuses on are not the large scale battles, or even atrocities and genocides, but smaller, more individual stories of lives touched by the shadow of war, whether human or feline.

Westall's style indeed is subtle, uncompromising and deeply honest, we learn just enough information to care about each situation, each character, each new emotion, and no more. Indeed, it is both a strength and a weakness that the story takes the form of almost a set of vignettes or short interludes as Lord Gort passes from one situation to another. This lets us experience a range of different characters and settings, from two grumpy old stable owners travails during the Coventry blitz and following refugee crisis, to a lonely woman's complicated feelings for a rough but decent sergeant, or a terrified young gunner sure that each night's flight will be his last.

This unfortunately does make the book's flow feel rather unsettling, almost uneven, since no sooner do we get to know and like a character, such as Stalker, the disabled member of the Spotter core, or Susan Herriott, an author suffering extreme depression after the death of her husband, both Lord Gort and the action move on. For the most part, Westall was able to pass matters on quickly, and with his usual deftness make the next character someone we equally came to care for despite initial disorientation, though in some situations, such as Lord Gort's time with a kindly but otherwise unremarkable vicars wife who cares for lost cats, or a short interlude she spends at a railway station where a number of WRVS ladies are serving incoming soldiers with packets of sandwiches, his depiction was a little too brief to quite have the effect it needed.

Apart from Lord Gort, the other recurring character is Jeff's wife Florence, and by extension Jeff himself. The way Westall handles Florence's ongoing feelings for Jeff, despite the changes the war wrecks upon Jeff's personality is absolutely masterful, showing how her worry for her distant husband morphs into first gladness when he returns, then tiredness when she realises just how profoundly the war has changed him, then further worry when the letters he writes her from the Air Force base he's stationed at are full of bravado and false cheer and utterly impersonal. Indeed, I applaud Westall for depicting Jeff as a genuinely good man who loves his wife and infant son; not to mention his cat, who is sent understandably wrong by the war, and whom we can still sympathise with even as we see him putting his own marriage under severe strain. Florence is also a brilliant example of a character written very much within the bounds and social expectations of the time, who nevertheless shows considerable courage and strength in her own right.

Westall also is extremely good at depicting his characters more unpleasant moments, such as Stalker the Spotter's irrational hatred of the Nazis, or a rough and ready Geordie sergeant's growing boredom and propensity for violence, whilst maintaining our sympathy for those characters. Indeed, often throughout the book I found myself understanding characters and feeling sorry for them, even as I disliked some of their individual reactions. This also ties into the wonderfully understated ways in which Lord Gort, as the stereotypically lucky or unlucky black cat inadvertently brings good fortune to those around her, often leaving people better off than when she found them.

With the highly dark setting and the emotional tension of the characters, these few moments of warmth are all the more precious, particularly since Westall's honesty never deserts him, and even though what he is describing are often tantamount to little miracles in the lives of his characters; albeit highly realistic and believable little miracles, not once does he need to reach for the treacle.

From unexploded bombs to troop transport trains to her own psi trailing abilities, Westall mostly succeeds in getting Lord Gort into a variety of situations around Britain without stretching credulity too far, though one section of coincidences, in which Lord Gort ended up crossing the entirety of Nazi occupied France and neutral Spain did go a bit too far for my taste, particularly since this long journey was dealt with extremely briefly. Indeed, whilst at 7 hours the book is comparatively short, I did get the feeling towards the end that Westall was slightly running out of steam, since new characters and situations were introduced in a rather cursory way and existed more to facilitate the final few coincidences which saw Lord Gort's journey come to an end, than, as had happened previously, be worthwhile stories in their own right.

The book's ending is surprisingly gentle, and hinges more on coincidence than any kind of a final reckoning, then again, any odyssey must end with a homecoming, and especially one which sees a battle-scarred cat, and an equally battle-scarred man finally having found their way back together despite the horrors of war, where they can both begin healing.

I will say, Blitzcat, despite winning the Smarties Prize for Children's Literature in 1989, is emphatically not in the least bit child directed or dumbed down, indeed though a host of reviews on Goodreads praise it, most seem to be from adults rather than from children. War, including a little realistically applied gore, violence, (and even more the impending threat of violence all are major themes in the book), plus of course the language that would've been used at the time (one reviewer was quite scandalised to find people in the past might have talked differently). Also, since one section does feature a small scale but subtle romance, there is even a scene of lovemaking, indeed the copy of the book I read when I was thirteen out right told us that two people made love, whilst the edition I read this time around seemed to miss that sentence and just heavily implied it.

That being said, as someone who enjoys books based on their quality rather than their intended audience, I can highly recommend Blitzcat to anyone who just enjoys a good story.

Like William Horwood's Skallagrigg, it is one of the few books I'd genuinely describe as magic realism, seeing real events through a slightly different perspective, offering a little bit of miraculous magic in a dark and terrible time, and therefore a book that should resonate with anyone, especially cat lovers.

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