It’s been a bumper year for fans of Joanne Harris. First there was Peaches for Monsieur le Curé, the third installment in the tale of the wonderful Vianne Rocher, and now there’s A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String, Harris’ second collection of short stories.
She’s one of those rare writers whose books sell superbly well but also manage to be thought-provoking, questioning assumptions and examining ideas many people take for granted. But she’s someone who has that most remarkable thing of all, a sense of magic and wonder at the world. Sometimes it’s very dark (witness her novel blueeyedboy, for instance) and sometimes the light simply glows so brightly it’s irresistible, as with Chocolat. Magic in its myriad forms is here in these stories.
As anyone who follows her occasional #storytime hashtag on Twitter (she tweets as @JoanneChocolat) knows, she has a deep love and understanding of myth and its power – of the archetypes of gods and elements that sit somewhere near the roots of psyche. Here they’re present overtly in a couple of stories, Rainy Days and Mondays and Wildfire in Manhattan, but with a twist; these aren’t always the all-powerful Norse gods of the old tales. Time has taken its toll on them, although redemption might be at hand.
The elements play a strong part, too, with water especially prevalent. It’s there in the title of River Song, where the water is so central and powerful, but it recurs here and there throughout the book (Hope’s feet in water and pebbles to take her mind to the coast, for example), and the path of Road Song is simply a different kind of river, one that can be swum or can sweep one away, never to return. There’s a sense, too, that Harris sees the Internet as another element, one containing good and evil, and it’s become so vital in all our lives that it might we considered that way. She finds beauty and hope in it, but also the sense of the sinister (after all, someone said magic is technology we don’t understand, if I have the quote right).
There are also gently comedic tales inspired by Elvis and the welcome return of Faith and Hope (twice!) who manage to find joy and triumph even as residents of a home for the elderly. Cookie keeps its ending deliciously ambivalent, a tale of baked goods and babies, and Muse finds inspiration in the rather mysterious owners – and cat – of an old-fashioned station café and its marvellous bacon sandwiches. It’s a book of sensual pleasures, of food, buildings and the joys that can hide behind even the tackiest Christmas.
Yes, Harris has magic. But perhaps her greatest gift is the compassion that comes through in her writing. She can be romantic, although never in a maudlin way, with the certainty of how love, in all its ways, can bring people together. A feeling of hope is the link between these stories, and that makes this not only a truly entertaining collection, not just a diversion but every bit as good as her rightly celebrated novels, and also a very powerful one.