About a year ago, Kathleen Dexter posted a comment on what, with more than 12,000 comments, is arguably the most popular thread on this site, Tortitude: The Unique Personality of Tortoiseshell Cats. She mentioned that several years ago, she wrote a novel featuring a tortoiseshell cat. At the time, the book was out of print. When Fifth Life of the CatWoman was re-released last month, the author sent me a review copy. Of course I was intrigued – any book featuring a tortie is going to get my interest. I didn’t know what to expect, and if it wasn’t for the tortie connection, I probably never would have picked up this book. Magical realism is not a genre I would typically read – but I sure am glad that I did.
From the publisher:
“It’s easy to find history written by those who win, those who hold power. It’s hard to find history written by the ones who lose,” says the mystery history teacher, Kat O’Malley. Unbeknownst to her students, she’s living the nine lives of a cat, and her history lessons come from four hundred years of underdog experience with witch trials, prejudice, intolerance and poverty. With much coaxing from the school’s headmaster—a man with as many secrets in his past as Kat has in hers—“the CatWoman” ventures out from the mirage oasis she shares with fifty cats to teach lessons that never made it into the history books. Through her considerable gifts as a storyteller, she teaches a new generation to live as if they, too, had to live nine lives and jump back eight times into any messes they create. But when history repeats itself and the nightmare intolerance of Kat’s past resurfaces, will she retreat forever into the safety of her cat-filled mirage? Or will she embrace her new life, her teaching and the love of the one person who knows her secret?”
This description doesn’t even begin to describe how spellbinding and utterly charming this book is. I loved Kat O’Malley and her magical world from the first page, and was captivated by her journey of moving from living life with only her 50 cats for company to slowly returning to reality, and in the process, teaching, through the use of stories, what real history is like. Drawing on her own experiences from previous lifetimes, Kat inspires her students to experience history on a level that’s different from the history books. In turn, Kat learns that living in fear is not really living at all.
Dexter’s writing style is lyrical and almost poetic at times. She paints pictures with words, making the New Mexico landscape come to life. Her description of the tortoiseshell coloring is a beautiful example:
“…gliding smoothly through all the shades of autumn – from the brown of dry leaves to the gold and red of those still to fall, from the grey branches about to sleep to the glossy black charcoal when those branches are burned.”
I also loved the passage when Kat gets sick, and the tortoiseshell cat does what cats do so well:
“The tortoiseshell mistook her shudder for a chill and climbed onto her chest…. With two quick turns, she had settled in, paws tucked in, purring a warmer poultice into the CatWoman’s chest…. Before long, she was entirely piled with purring cats, buzzing head to toe with a heat she could never have coaxed from a fire, or from tea. … When the purring finally reached into the very center of her bones – the very coldest, iciest thread inside of her, numb for centuries, it seemed – she began to cry. And for hours, as that ice thread melted into tears, the cats purred on.”
This book touched me deeply, and it’s one I will be rereading over and over. It is poignant, haunting, bittersweet, joyful, and thought-provoking. And the fact that a tortoiseshell cat cat appears throughout the book only added to my overall enjoyment of the book. This book is a real treasure – my life feels richer for having read it.