A Novel Ian Likes: It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Neville

Dave Mitchell lives in New York with his parents. He doesn’t think they “get” him or the important things in his world. He also lives with Cat, a stray “given” to him by Kate, the neighbourhood cat lady. Through Cat, Dave gets introduced to a wider world and develops a better understanding of those around him.

Emily Neville (1919-1997) was a reasonably well-known author in her lifetime. It’s Like This, Cat (her first novel) won the Newbury Medal. She wrote ten other books after that. But it’s hard to find information about her or, more importantly, anybody else who has read her work. Sadly, she appears to have fallen through the cracks of contemporary publishing.   

It’s Like This, Cat is, however, an unusual book which may explain its lack of any kind of footprint in popular culture. It’s told in a meandering, picaresque way that doesn’t reveal any kind of story until you nearly reach the end; it features a smart-alecky teenager who just wants to roam through New York with his cat as a protagonist; and there are no major epiphanies or plot twists along the way save that Dave realises that he doesn’t know people as well as he thought he might have.

It’s the sort of novel that there used to be a lot more of, to be honest. Before the rise of genre publishing, novels for older kids (“Young Adult” as a genre only really came into existence around the mid-80s) tended to be like novels for adults except without the “complicated” themes or language.

It’s Like This, Cat, however, talks about finding a place in the world that you live in and having reliable people around you that can help you or be helped by you. It’s most obvious with Dave’s friendship with Tom, a university dropout whom he befriends when looking for Cat in another building. Tom is introduced to us as a young man who’s stealing from the building, but who takes the time to free Cat from a cage by jimmying the lock. When he is convicted of burglary, Dave takes a chance and writes to him, thanking him for releasing Cat. They stay in touch and Dave discovers that Tom, who appears quite knowledgeable in a lot of ways, has his own share of troubles and issues. But, when Dave reluctantly enlists the help of his father he realises that he might be wrong about him, too, as he appears to want to genuinely help out Tom.

Then there’s Mary. Dave meets her on an expedition with a friend and Cat to the beach. Mary is there with some of her friends but her friends seem more interested in teasing Dave about being at the beach with his cat. They bump into each other some weeks later by accident and wind up going to see West Side Story together. They then organise another meeting where they go bike riding together. They organise to meet again but Dave is ill and can’t make it or get in touch with her because he didn’t get her phone number or address. So it comes as a complete surprise when she rings him at home to “rescue” her when she’s shopping in the city and has run out of money to get home with.

And then we have… But that would be giving away far too much of the story and I really don’t want to do that.

Something that I haven’t mentioned yet is how much of a character Neville makes New York in this book. I’ve been ambivalent towards travelling my whole life: I’ve enjoyed the trips away that I’ve had but they aren’t something I actively plan for and a lot of places that I’ve been to have been suspiciously close to places that I’ve needed to go to for other reasons (weddings, reunions, that sort of thing). But I’ve always wanted to visit “my” New York. Not New York as it is now, though, but New York as I imagined it during the middle of the Twentieth Century. The books I’ve read have painted a very unrealistic picture of a city that I want to go to but it doesn’t exist. It was an amalgam of any number of writers like Mark Helprin, Helene Hanff, Arthur Miller, Isaac Asimov and others who had created a magical picture of The Big Apple as it was in my head… I’ve given it a lot of thought and I can trace it all back to this book.

It wasn’t even my book: my sister had it first, but it appeared that I was the only one who read it with any kind of regularity. We even got rid of it during a move and I only rediscovered it about twenty years later in a second-hand shop. It’s also a very slim volume and not a lot really happens in it except that a boy gets to understand the people around him a little better. And, while most of my reading had held a healthy slice of the domestic and was built around relationships between people, they weren’t – to put it mildly – the main focus. If I could be generous to much-younger me, I was more concerned with plot over character then. Thankfully I’ve gone quite a ways in the other direction these days, and Dave and his family and friends were possibly a cat-alyst for that (I’m so, so sorry).

I was more used to stories that had more action and adventure in them, where people faced hard moral decisions that usually meant choosing between a) sending people out to fight for their honour or b) compromising, not have people kill each other and then seeing if they could live with that result. As I grew older, though, I began to realise that I didn’t like those hard worlds where people made decisions that affected everyone around them in a terrible way. It was bad enough living in a world like that, let alone reading about it.

But for a youngster who spent a lot of time in other people’s worlds, this felt like an ok place to be, peopled with folks who weren’t actively out to thwart or hurt each other. And that’s not a bad place to go to, really. Plus, it has cats.

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