Book review: A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String by Joanne Harris

It takes a wicked and powerful imagination to conjure up stories like Chocolat, the best-selling book which was turned into an equally seductive film, so expect something deliciously different in Joanne Harris’s new collection of short stories.

Thursday, 16th January 2014, 9:00 am
A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String by Joanne Harris
A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String by Joanne Harris

The title for these beguiling, occasionally bizarre and loosely interconnected tales was founded on Harris’s choice of three essential items for her ‘desert island’ – a cat for company, a hat to keep off the sun and the string for a multitude of purposes.

Each, she felt, could also inspire scores of stories so on that basis, she set to work on these 16 magical flights of fancy, all designed to either move, amuse or surprise, and every one a work of art in its own special way.

This is her first short story collection since Jigs & Reels and some of the characters featured here – like Faith and Hope, the feisty and unforgettable pensioners from Meadowbank old folks’ home – are allowed a welcome reappearance.

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Desperately trying to keep their sense of humour and innate dignity in a sea of jobsworth, bullying carers, the two elderly ladies enjoy an unexpected treat when they are left out of a coach outing to Blackpool for briefly escaping from the home.

Stories featuring the everyday jostle with tales of the unexpected so that at one point we are visiting a house where it is Christmas all year round and the next we are worrying about a young girl in the Congo who rides the rapids to entertain foreign visitors and earn a crust of bread.

We meet the ghost who lives on a Twitter timeline, find ourselves spooked by a newborn baby created with sugar, spice and lashings of cake and spy on Norse gods battling each other for survival in modern Manhattan.

‘Dee Eye Why’ relates a man’s relationship with resident ghosts as he obsessively restores a dilapidated old house after his marriage breaks up, and ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ features a lonely woman’s fantasies about a DJ she hears on the internet.

Each short story is preceded by a brief introduction from Harris, allowing readers a fascinating insight into the sources of her inspiration and the psychology behind the characters’ thinking and actions.

Harris is an audacious writer and there are stories here that are guaranteed to unsettle but her message is overwhelmingly one of reassurance that much of the world around us is dependable if not always rational and predictable.

‘Stories are like Russian dolls,’ she tells us,’ open them up, and in each one you’ll find another story.’

Warm, wise, witty and wonderful!

(Black Swan, paperback, £7.99)