Read Managing Editor Ethan Vilu's review of Louise Carson's 2023 mystery novel "The Cat Looked Back". Have a book you'd like us to review? Please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org!
A solitary woman takes stock of her life while baking eccles cakes. An antiques dealer pursues a strained, halting romance. A vulnerable man feels conspiratorial forces pressing in from all sides. The wide river runs. Cats scurry about in the night. A fire burns.
The Cat Looked Back, the sixth entry in Louise Carson’s Maples Mystery series, is a story told primarily through texture and atmosphere. Rather than any grand, slowly revealed conspiracy, the reader finds the actions of many flawed humans, added up into a subtle clamour of suffering. Prudence Catford Crick, a housekeeper, long-separated from her criminal ex-husband, leads a life fundamentally governed by shame. As she finds herself compelled to undergo an arduous journey towards emotional clarity (due in large part to the arrival of one Bertie Smith, Montrealer antique specialist), the death of an elderly woman and the near-death of another shake the foundations of her world. Prudence lives in Lovering, a rural community whose dynamics of insularity and uncomfortable interwovenness are expertly captured by the author. Here we find a brusque, almost abrasive lack of curiosity about much of the world--a remarkable amount of time, for example, is spent with characters expressing a deep-seated antipathy towards the idea of single-origin coffee--but also immense beauty, demonstrated through what are frequently disarming descriptions of gardens, orchards, alleyways, old houses, baked goods, and cats of all shapes and sizes.
The most fascinating thing about Prudence Crick, and perhaps about The Cat Looked Back, is how the difficulty of her emotional processing suffuses itself throughout the whole of the novel. With all the exterior emphasis on pastries and cats, I will admit that I went into the book expecting something at least relatively light-hearted, but what I discovered instead was tense, even claustrophobic. Not just the deaths, but a number of the important dialogue moments occur off-screen, as it were, and in their place the reader inhabits the oppressive contours of Prudence’s psyche. When she began to open herself up towards the end of the book, it felt like I was coming up for air. This is a great achievement on Carson’s part, although not of the kind that I would typically associate with the cozy mystery genre.
In terms of style, The Cat Looked Back is thoroughly sound with a number of exquisite elements. As mentioned earlier, these occur mainly as descriptions of scenes--Carson’s care for the mundane aspects of life shines through in these moments, and it is a greatly enjoyable experience for the reader. The few parts of the novel which struck me as stylistically dull stemmed mainly from heavy-handed efforts to make the book accessible. In particular, an outside-the-narrative sentence which explained that Beaver Lake is a small pond in Montreal (after Bertie Smith had mentioned the lake in passing) grated on me for several pages afterwards. Such hand-holding displays a real lack of trust in the reader, who could easily have been counted on to either look the lake up or else assume Bertie’s statement to be coherent as part of their immersion in the narrative. In this moment and a handful of others, I could not help but notice the book’s conceptual strain, as a psychological maelstrom wrapped superficially in a soothing blanket.
The Cat Looked Back is a very particular book, sonorous and multifaceted, comprehensively dripping with tension. It is resplendent with sugar and water, cats and coffee, deception and death. It is more than worth reading if one desires either a fanciful escape or a ruthless interrogation of the self; however, one will only leave fully satisfied if they desire both, at the same time, with all the strange disjunction that involves.