In Advice for Strays Justine Kilkerr challenges our perceptions of reality and presents a case study on coping with mental illness.
Advice for Strays is the startling debut from Brighton-based author, Justine Kilkerr (b. 1970). A hugely original novel, it is an engrossing story about love, loss, family and a very unusual friendship. Marnie, the central character and narrator, lives alone with her cat, a do-as-I-please pet, the moody Mr Knuckles. The novel opens with Marnie’s discovery that her father, a famous writer, has disappeared. This is not in itself all that unusual as her father is schizophrenic and prone to literal flights of fancy; but it becomes clear that this time is different and Marnie is struggling to cope with his absence. Added to this strain is the fact that cats in Marnie’s neighbourhood are also starting to vanish, including Mr Knuckles – no one knows if they’ve been taken or scared away.
Soon, Marnie’s insomnia and deep-seated anxiety regarding the whereabouts of her father begin to take over her life as she becomes increasingly lost in her past. Advice for Strays engages with a wide range of subjects, including mental illness, depression, family relationships and the validity of memories. The overall effect is a intriguing novel from a new writer capable of tackling serious issues within the parameters of story that is both moving and mesmerising.
Given the scope and reach of the narrative, it is surprising that the development of the novel was an entirely spontaneous process, as Kilkerr explains: “The novel grew from a very short story I wrote as a writing exercise, which was to find a photo of yourself as a small child and write something from the child’s perspective. I dug out the photo of me aged five with a lion cub. Something about the 500-word story stuck with me and I carried on writing. The novel grew organically from this point, with different ideas popping into my head as I wrote and being put down on paper, like using stories from my childhood, writing a grown-up, dark fairytale.”
There is certainly a feel of fairytales and the fantastic about Advice for Strays. Weaving in and out of Marnie’s ongoing search for her father is an almost supernatural element consisting of an imaginary friend who is the lion cub from the photo used by Kilkerr as a basis for her original short story. Jericho, who has matured with Marnie and is now a fully-grown lion, is Marnie’s near constant companion and is one of the most fascinating voices in the book. How he is perceived – as real or not real – is probably down to the mindset of the reader and how open they are to such imaginative leaps of faith.
However he is regarded, Jericho is an unforgettable creation and it is a testament to Kilkerr’s talent as a writer that she not only brings him to life so convincingly but also creates a story in which he fits so comfortably. He also provides some welcome relief from Marnie’s struggles with herself and her family by bringing humour and repartee into the narrative. His voice is dry and ironic, his impatient words replace the claws that were, we are told, removed from him as a cub in the circus, which again harks back to the photo that is the basis for the novel. Despite the fact that Kilkerr didn’t know where the story would take her when she began, she had a very clear idea of what Jericho’s voice should be. “I very much didn’t want him to be kind and cuddly and self-sacrificial, a saviour. I wanted the opposite of CS Lewis’ Aslan. The idea being that as a young lion he was a playmate and an escape, a confidante for Marnie. But now he’s back he is old and weary and the last thing he wants to do is help anyone. But I also wanted him to have a wry, desperate sort of humour, a sort of gallows humour, to break up his general misery and grumpiness.” Quite where Jericho comes from is never fully explained, but that he was an important part of Marnie’s childhood and that he has reappeared at a time of crisis, is indicative of her troubled mind. Underneath the fantasy and the gallows humour is the serious subject of mental illness and what it is like to grow up with a mentally ill parent.
Marnie’s relationship with her father was at best unpredictable and at worst emotionally abusive. Either through desperate unhappiness or an urgent need to feel safe, Marnie’s younger self called up this creature she met once on a visit to the circus and was forced to cuddle by her over-enthusiastic dad. A bond was formed, somewhere in the place between reality and fantasy, that was real enough to the child Marnie that she can vividly describe the feel of his coat against her toes at night and the sensation of his tongue on a blooded knee. Ultimately, Jericho represents escapism. His reappearance (especially in the context of a chain of events which leads to him causing damage and physical harm to someone Marnie resents) represents one of the themes Kilkerr was keen to explore – what would happen if our daydreams took on a life of their own? “It’s something that fascinates me, the letting go of adult restraint and what that looks like, feels like, considering that our dreams as adults are so very different, so very much more coloured by harsh experience, than those of children. The bitterness and the vengefulness, the idea of all that coming pouring out in some tangible way.”
Another theme that binds the narrative is that of the act of remembering. Marnie’s relationship with her father is told entirely in the form of recollection of childhood and more recent experiences of him. As he is missing from the beginning of the story, we never get to witness a scene with him first hand. Kilkerr’s decision to leave him absent from the present adds poignancy to a relationship that would otherwise only be disturbing. As most of the episodes relate to the experiences of Marnie as a child, the reader is left with a distinct and unforgettable sense of what it is like to grow up with an affectionate father whose behaviour is nevertheless erratic, often unreasonable and occasionally threatening. Our sympathies lie wholly with Marnie, but Kilkerr never loses sight of the fact that behind Marnie’s father’s behaviour is a serious mental illness. Mental health issues are far more common in our society than most of us realise or are prepared to accept. It is still a taboo subject, yet one in four of us will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year and cases of common mental disorders, especially among women and young people, are on the increase.
Marnie’s search for her father in the present is mirrored by her efforts to understand him in her past. Marnie finds herself swimming in a sea of lost time, struggling to deal with her memories of her father. In the process, she also is in danger of losing herself as she becomes increasingly reliant on Jericho for company and support. Just as each chapter of the novel opens with a different poster for a lost cat, loss and feeling lost are two more unifying ideas that span the novel. Marnie is losing herself to the extent that she’s almost stopped feeling altogether – she internalises everything and won’t even allow herself to cry. It takes the sudden and shocking death of a close friend to kick-start her emotional engine and set her on the road that will hopefully take her out of her memories and back into the present.
Advice for Strays is a moving account of one woman’s battle to come to terms with her past and to face her future. It is a confident and accomplished debut, which combines lyrical writing with unforgettable characters. Questions are left unanswered, but not unsatisfyingly so, which was Kilkerr’s intention from the outset: “I like ambiguity, open endings, avenues being chosen by the readers themselves. I like to give the reader a little bit of ‘work’ to do, if that makes sense, and really want people to make up their own minds what is happening throughout the book and what happens in the end; to Marnie, to her father, to Jericho.” Marnie’s life is fragmenting, which isn’t always easy to witness, but this doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of a touching and captivating novel.