Don’t you love it when a book you dearly loved has a sequel?
As a crazy cat lady in the making, I lapped up everything about Helen Brown’s first feline-related book Cleo: How an uppity cat helped heal a family. It’s the true story of how a little black kitten came into her life after her nine-year-son Sam was tragically killed in a road accident, in front of his younger brother Rob. Spirited, regal Cleo was the tonic Helen and her family needed: her kittenish antics and unwavering companionship see the Brown family through their heartache and many more years of ups and downs too.
So you can imagine my utter glee when I discovered there was follow up.
This one picks up where the first story left off, with Cleo having recently passed on and a vehement Helen rejecting all notions of getting another cat – ever.
It takes a battle with breast cancer to change her mind. While recovering from a mastectomy, Helen’s sister spots “the cutest Siamese kitten in the pet shop across town.” Despite barely being able to hobble to the car, her adamant no cat stance and a dislike of the breed, it doesn’t actually take much convincing to get Helen to the shops. Then the beautiful milk white kitten tinged with shadowy brown, matching ears, tail and feet does all the rest. She writes:
“I have always assumed love at first sight was a human-to-human thing, and not something that could occur between a middle-aged woman and a Siamese kitten. But in those few seconds I’d become enraptured. At some sub-cellular level that kitten and I belonged together.”
To seal the deal, the sleek and athletic kitten is named Jonah, in homage to our great All Black winger who was hitting the headlines at the time and also to appeal to her rugby mad but not so fond of cats husband, Philip.
Jonah quickly establishes himself as a madcap dervish who wraps the entire household around his little chocolate paw. His antics (and trail of destruction) are the perfect foil for the myriad of stresses Helen faces on top of her recuperation: organising her son Rob’s impending nuptials, trying to complete the manuscript for the Cleo book and most worrying of all, daughter Lydia’s decision to give up her scholarship at university to become a Buddhist nun in Sri Lanka.
But oh what a delightful read this is! Despite the obviously painful and often trying situations, Helen fearlessly opens up about these physical and emotional hardships and is unflinchingly honest, even when sometimes it means she is cast in a not so flattering light. Her insights into aging, death and the challenges of motherhood – especially when your beautiful and talented daughter wants to become a nun in a country embroiled in civil war – are warm and sincere. Her wry observations, such as Lydia’s penchant for wearing white – the colour of purity – had me snorting with laughter. She writes: “As we watched her float away like a snowflake toward the departure gate, the mother in me thought “What a dreadful colour for stains. I hope she doesn’t spill tomato sauce over herself.”
And then there’s Jonah. Capricious, wily, Jonah with his crazy, demanding ways and clever perceptions into his family’s needs that only a feline can have. How I loved him! And when he ends up on kitty Prozac after terrorising the house with prolific territorial spraying, his newly achieved Zen state nearly matches that of the devout and much meditated Lydia.
The epitome of the bitter-sweet memoir After Cleo: Came Jonah is and every bit as charming, funny and heartfelt as its predecessor. I carried it everywhere I went in the two days it took me to read it, pulling it out whenever I had even just a spare moment or two – that to me is the mark of a great read. And just as Cleo placed a little paw print on my book loving heart, Jonah did too – in his distinctly more energetic and rambunctious way of course.
After Cleo: Came Jonah – How a crazy kitten and a rebelling daughter turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
by Helen Brown
Published by Arena (Allen & Unwin)