I was given this book by a friend, who left it on my desk with a note saying “this is a cute story!” I am not sure that I would consider it cute, but it is the first Bryce Courtenay novel I have finished since reading The Power of One.
Matthew Flinder’s Cat is set in Sydney, and centres on a homeless alcoholic man who used to be a very successful lawyer. He meets a young boy who has a very troubled home life, and the two become fast friends. Billy and Ryan bond over the story of Captain Flinder’s cat, a historical figure well known in Australia. When trouble looms, Billy takes a bus to Surfer’s Paradise (for free, as the Sydney municipal government was trying to clear out all the homeless prior to the Olympics), and Ryan’s life goes horribly awry. In an effort to help Ryan and other people he has met along the way, Billy detoxes and tries to save Ryan.
Many of the characters and situations seem a bit cliche to me (Ryan is troubled but exceptional; the policemen are corrupt; Billy is a former lawyer with just the right connections; his roommates in rehab know just where to look; etc) , but the setting is very well drawn. The novel gives a different view of Sydney and its societal problems, which was really kind of interesting, particularly the passing mentions of the city’s attempts to clear away unwanted citizens prior to the Olympics. This is something that was much discussed prior to the recent Vancouver Winter Olympics, but I am not sure how successful either attempt was in the end. Billy’s detox and subsequent rehabilitation under the careful supervision of the Salvation Army was also nicely written, as were the scenes with AA meetings. The book describes the hard work and pain associated with cleaning up, which always seems to be glossed over in movies.
Scattered throughout the book are snippets of the story of Trim the cat, told or written by Billy. The story of the cat and his crew is meant to anchor the book, I think, and illustrate points about bravery and loyalty, but the prose in these sections is florid in comparison to the main text and sometimes slows the central story down. Also, I thought the resolution was a bit too convenient, given how messy the lives of the characters were at the beginning, but that seems to be common to Courtenay novels. I am not sure I would recommend this book, but it wasn’t awful. I suppose it is worth every penny I spent on it.