Life on a British warship in China ... through the eyes of a little cat [Review]

John Millen |

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Able Seacat Simon

By Lynne Barrett-Lee

Published by Simon and Schuster

ISBN 978 1 4711 5891 9

Author Lynne Barrett-Lee successfully combines two very different genres – war stories and cat tales – into one book. A novel combining the two could fall between two stools if the writer isn’t careful. These are two types of tale that don’t naturally go together. But Barrett-Lee knows what she’s doing with Able Seacat Simon. Her novel is a fictional retelling of a true story. Able Seacat Simon did actually exist, and even though the story might have been tweaked a little bit, the tale is inspired by real events.

When a bedraggled half-starved kitten is found by an English sailor in the Hong Kong docks in 1948, he has no idea of the dramatic turn his life is about to take.

The kitten is smuggled on-board the British warship HMS Amethyst and christened “Simon”. He gets accustomed to his new home, and is given the job of catching the rats that infest the ship’s grain store. Simon takes his responsibilities very seriously.

Barrett-Lee chose to tell Simon’s story in his own words. Animals don’t talk, and a young adult novel narrated by an animal can be risky for a writer. A classic novel like Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1887) pulls off this dangerous feat, but there aren’t many other successful animal-narrated stories.

Would the story of Able Seacat Simon have been more accessible if it had been told in the third person? There are only one or two occasions in the book when the narrative gets in the way of the story. The plot is so packed with drama and emotion that readers soon forget to question who the storyteller is.

As soon as Simon settles into a comfortable life on-board the ship, the HMS Amethyst is ordered to sail up the Yangtze River to guard the British Embassy during the war to gain control of China between the Communists and the Nationalists. Communist guns attack the Amethyst and virtually take the ship hostage. Several of the crew are killed, and Simon himself is seriously wounded.

Surviving his own injuries, Simon becomes a central part of keeping the remaining crew’s morale up. As weeks stretch into months and the endless negotiations to free the Amethyst come to nothing, the captain decides to make a break for freedom, with Simon being at the centre of the action.

Able Seacat Simon is a moving and exciting read. It looks at a historical event from an interesting angle. Even if you’ve never read a novel told from an animal’s point of view, Simon will convince you that it works. You might even need a box of tissues handy as the story comes to a close.

John Millen can be contacted on [email protected]