A fresh and original voice is said to be the number-one thing publishers look for in a manuscript. Katherine Forbes Riley’s debut novel "The Bobcat" is definitely outside the mainstream, with unusual word choices that seem befitting of an unorthodox heroine. While the architecture and style of the novel took some getting used to, the story pulled me in and never let go.
Laurelie is an art major who transfers to a smaller, more remote college after repressed memories of a date-rape drug in her beer start coming back to her. The more she remembers, the more isolated and withdrawn she becomes. Living off-campus in a cottage near the woods in rural Vermont, she focuses on her art while keeping people at a safe distance. Until the bobcat appears, followed by the hiker.
Laurelie is a classic tortured artist, keeping unpleasant memories just of of reach and not letting people probe her too deeply. Scenes from each chapter become part of her artwork, which adds a unique layer of interest and depth.
Her narrative voice seems to suggest a weirdly fractured connection with the outer world. The confabulated opening sentence of the book will be either arresting or jarring, depending on the reader's sensibilities:
"Physically the fog signaled only the tail end of a long Vermont winter. But nature assumed a kind of sentience, given space. So it pillowed against Laurelie'swindows as a soft asylum wall and leaked its internal fluids on the sills and acted as a deranged refractor on the view, magnifying the crags and pores down her cottage's stone walls into dizzying cliffs, while drowning the yard and forest beyond in uniform gray particulate." and a sentence or two later, "Ice computed a massive geometry, drifting white in shards down the new black water."
I almost declared this a DFN (do not finish) but kept on with it, thinking the tortured syntax might be deliberate--carefully crafted to reflect the heroine's mental state--rather than, as one reviewer put it, a case of a debut novelist "trying too hard" (that's a strong judgment).
The story steadily emerges, fragile as a fresh, wet butterfly, so I kept reading. I love Laurelie has a babysitter and "the boy' is incredibly lucky to have her in the afternoon, taking him on nature walks, letting him discover the world on his own terms, and letting him get as dirty or wet as need be. I hated his mother for complaining that Laurelie brings him home "dirty." How lucky could that mother be to have such a babysitter?
Laurelie's more comfortable in nature, and with a child, than she is in society. I began to think this was intended to be a nature book like the ones our son read in college for an Ecological Literature class. His favorite novel that semester was "The Song of the World,"a 1934 novel byJean Giono, a French author and early environmentalist whose poetic nature prose was said to be inspired by Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."
When Giono writes anthropomorphism, it's pure poetry. His river man and his man of the mountain are unspoiled by civilization and Western thought. On page one, Antonio lays a hand on an old oak tree and listens to its shiverings, and the birds, like him, listen to the river. The woman "evoked her great, tragic life, clad in love and hayfields, and joys more dazzling than hawthorn hedges." Line after line, page after page, is lyrical and rhythmic and alive. Not jarring. Not like Laurelie's deranged fog leaking its fluids or her impression of ice computing a massive geometry. But Laurelie is not the mountain man; the hiker is; and we don't read this story from his point of view.
The advent of the wounded female bobcat is epic, but even more epic is the hiker who's followed her for 300 miles because--well, read the book and see.
Laurelie strangely avoids naming the boy or the hiker, even after they grow increasingly familiar with each other. Apparently, when the hiker is named on the final page, it's a major milestone, a sign of Laurelei having moved past the weirdness of an being extreme introvert who tries to keep people at a safe distance.
The narrative is leisurely but not too slow. Weird, yes, but never a dull a moment. There's a lovely scene involving dolphins, a strange scene reminiscent of Woodstock, then the drama of the boy going missing. Chapter 17 was my favorite, with the scientific explanation of how the hiker came to be the nature man he is, a bobcat whisperer, a nomad living out of a tent, an expert on native flora and fauna, He's an herbalist, chef, and healer as well as a hiker. The reason for his extraordinary traits might force him to be isolated from Laurelie for reasons (Spoilers!) I cannot explain, much as I'd like to.
The linguistics major is a fun character who shows up again toward the end and takes on the role of leading Laurelie out of her hermitage and into Friday happy-hours and fun times with fellow students at a pub near campus. These scenes shine. It's fun to watch butterly Laurelie unfolding those wings and flapping them a bit.
It's the pages describing the hiker that had me wondering if the author knew what she was doing. The hiker's nostrils are mentioned 37 times. I kid you not. His nostrils flared white; his nostrils rippled with irregular vibrations; they pulsed, flared and flared again, settled into a strong steady pulse, flared thoughtfully and even "went into full flight." His nostrils"went from a flicker to a dance and started "going lightspeed" at the door of the fridge. His nostrils fluttered and whipped like sheets in the wind; they flared, half-flared, flickered erratically, spasmed erratically, pulsed gently, pulsed hard, rippled tightly, flared and flickered a dozen more times.
And while his nostrils visibly moved and captured Laurelie's attention, the hiker also did a lot of mouth-breathing. I could have sworn "mouth breather" was a derogatory term, but not in this novel. I didn't count how many times the hiker was mouth breathing, but it was a lot. "Mouth breather" is not a sexy thing but I suspect the author must have thought so, or maybe she was trying to depict something else but the right words eluded her.
In all, this is a pleasing novel, with intriguing characters who are not cardboard cutouts. They're real and believable. Odd, yes, but to me, "quirky" is good. Predictable and normal are boring in fiction.
Fiction workshoppers would demand more fast-paced action, peril, and suspense, but I was very happy that nobody ended up dead in the woods here. I've read more than I care to of thrillers, whodunnits, and murder victims. "The Bobcat" is a fresh, original, and very satisfying tale, and I don't see nearly enough stories that dare to deliver vibes of warmth and hope. More please, Katherine Forbes Riley!
Thank you to NetGalley and Skyhorse Publishing for an ARC of this novel.
- Hardcover: 212 pages
- Publisher: Arcade (18 June 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1948924099
- ISBN-13: 978-1948924092
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 2 x 21 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 386 g
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