Helen Brown is the bestselling author of Cleo, subtitled The Cat Who Mended a Family and in some editions, How an Uppity Cat Healed a Family. It’s these subtitles which clarify that the memoir is about much more than a cat.
This is what the blurb says:
Helen Brown wasn’t a cat person, but her nine-year-old son Sam was. So when Sam heard a woman telling his mum that her cat had just had kittens, Sam pleaded to go and see them.
Helen’s heart melted as Sam held one of the kittens in his hands with a look of total adoration. In a trice the deal was done – the kitten would be delivered when she was big enough to leave her mother.
A week later, Sam was dead. Not long after, a little black kitten was delivered to the grieving family. Totally traumatised by Sam’s death, Helen had forgotten all about the new arrival. After all, that was back in another universe when Sam was alive.
Helen was ready to send the kitten back, but Sam’s younger brother wanted to keep her, identifying with the tiny black kitten who’d also lost her brothers. When Rob stroked her fur, it was the first time Helen had seen him smile since Sam’s death. There was no choice: the kitten – dubbed Cleo – had to stay.
Kitten or not, there seemed no hope of becoming a normal family. But Cleo’s zest for life slowly taught the traumatised family to laugh. She went on to become the uppity high priestess of Helen’s household, vetoing her new men, terrifying visiting dogs and building a special bond with Rob, his sister Lydia, Helen – and later a baby daughter.
But cats, like the dogs that are an indispensable part of my family, have a shorter lifespan than humans, and so it’s inevitable that at some stage a family has to confront the idea of acquiring a successor to the irreplaceable family pet. For Helen Brown, that decision coincided with another trauma: she was diagnosed with breast cancer – and at the same time, her younger daughter took off to live in a Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka.
After Cleo Came Jonah is a moving memoir about resilience and the human spirit. For Helen Brown, coping is linked with her family, her work as an author, and the antics of a small furry friend. With dry Aussie humour and painful honesty, she shares her fears of mortality, her anxiety and self-doubt about her daughter, and her gradual acceptance of situations beyond her own control.
A memoir like this always raises the question of ‘how much to tell’. Brown unflinchingly shares her sense of abandonment when Lydia leaves almost on the eve of the mastectomy. ‘How could she?’ she asks.
Roaring with tears, I ran to the bedroom, slammed the door and flung myself on the bed.
Lydia loved orphans. Her devotion to people in wheelchairs was beyond comprehension. She’d drop everything to attend a fundraiser for refugees. Eggs from caged hens were repulsive to her. She loved the environment so much she preferred riding my old bike to driving and wanted me to start a compost heap. Possibly she loved Ned, Buddha and her monk as well. Lydia’s heart was so huge the whole world basked in the shimmer of her loving compassion.
How come she found it so hard to be kind to me? (p59)
Friends and other family members rally and provide enviable support, but it’s her daughter that she wants. Her journey to acceptance of her daughter as an individual in her own right is a tribute to emotional maturity but it’s discomfiting reading. Brown herself addresses this vexed issue of mining her own family life for her writing:
People sometimes ask how they feel featuring in so much of my writing. All I can say is they’re incredibly generous and tolerant about it. Rob, Lydia and Katharine grew up knowing nothing different. They were written about even before they were born, through most of our ups and downs until the present. I was helped by the fact that for most of their lives they were convinced no one could possibly want to read Mum’s ramblings.
It probably hasn’t been so easy for Philip [Brown's second husband']. It took him a while to adjust to being writer’s fodder, on the understanding he read anything he featured in before it was published. (p204-5)
While the mother-daughter relationship is conveyed ‘warts-and-all’, the portrayal of Philip may have been tempered either by the author’s anticipation of ‘no-go areas’ or his right of veto. He seems just a little too-good-to-be-true. (If not, she should clone him!) But even if there are ‘gaps’ in his characterisation, this memoir is not about him, so it doesn’t matter. This book is about the complexity of the female role, always trying to juggle the needs of others with the need for self-determination. It’s about seeking to find a balance between a loving heart and meeting one’s own needs and ambitions.
Having brought her daughters up to be strong women, Brown has to confront her own dependency while she’s coping with cancer. She cherishes her daughter’s compassion and her skill with ‘the maimed, the halt, the mad, the blind‘, and she needs these gifts while she’s vulnerable. As many people know if they’ve been in this heart-wrenching situation, there is never a good time to leave someone who has a life-threatening disease or chronic condition. There is never a time when it can be done without guilt, all the worse for knowing that there will always be those who cast judgement. I think young Lydia is heroic for giving permission for this story to be told.
Helen Brown blogs here.
PS I will be discussing this book with the author at [Untitled] the Stonnington Literary festival on November 17th, click the link for more details.
Author: Helen Brown
Title: After Cleo Came Jonah (‘Cats and Daughters‘ in the UK and the US)
Publisher: Allen & Unwin 2012
Source: Kingston Library