All of us long for some kind of profound connection.
More than that, we need it, in ways too complex and unknowing to articulate at times, and we often need more of it that we realise, especially at Christmas which, possibly more than most other festivals, near-demands an intense and meaningful interconnectedness.
This becomes beautifully clear in Florence McNicoll’s The Nine Lives of Christmas, a novel which is as much a love letter to the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, as it does a touching declaration of our need to matter to someone else.
Or something else, such as a cat, perhaps?
Definitely, a cat which is what nine disparate people discover when they end up at Battersea looking for a little furry love in their lives, and a palpable sense that their lives have meaning and purpose.
That may sound like a lot to ask of one small animal but McNicoll beautifully and touchingly illustrates, even if the writing is a little too earnestly sentimental and stiff at times, how much difference a cat can make to someone’s life and how, in turn, how they can change their new furry companion’s existence for the better.
“Laura had shaken her head sadly. This was a major point of contention between her and Rob. He just didn’t like cats, he didn’t want one in the flat, using all his fancy mid-century furniture as a scratching post and getting hairs in the vinyl collection. Laura knew they could provide a perfect home for a cat – they had a small garden too – but Rob was adamant. He has a beautifully kept tank of tropical fish, and he’d said Laura could name a few of those. She hadn’t had the heart to explain that it wasn’t the same, much as she’d tried to bond with the newly christened Flotsam and Jetsam.” (P. 6)
The Nine Lives of Christmas centres around Laura, a quiet woman whose greatest joy comes from working as a Rehomer at Battersea where her best friend Jackie also works, both of them supremely committed to the welfare of the animals in their care.
It is her job, as well as caring for the cats such as Felicia with whom she forms a particularly strong bond and getting the cats noticed on social media by potential new forever humans, to make sure that the people looking to adopt as suitable and then to pair them with just the right cat.
So it is that we meet Alison & John, Mark, Casey, Carlos, Jack, Wanda, Lucie, Rufus & Allan, and Aaron and his grandmother Enid, granted more than the nine people of the title but as the book makes marvellously clear, while you might come in contact with one person, there is always someone else in their life who will be changed for the better too.
We come to see how these people, through various means, come to Battersea and have their lives wholly and gloriously upended by a small bundle of fur, who also find the love many of them have been missing out on in the loving arms of their forever humans.
If you love a modern fairytale of lost people and animals finding each other, you will adore The Nine Lives of Christmas which takes place, naturally enough, around what is often referred to as the most wonderful time of the year.
But it is far from that for many people, something which is made abundantly plain in the various interlocking stories of the novel which celebrates love and connection but also empathetically understands that can often be outside the grasp of many people who instead face loss and loneliness with no clear way of fighting their way out.
That’s even the case for Laura who, while she’s busy connecting people and cats, and down the track people and people in ways that wholly transform the lives of the nine people who come for a cat and leave, eventually, with far more, is struggling with a less than fulfilling personal life.
Her boyfriend Rob, who is many ways a lovely guy, doesn’t really understand why Laura’s work at Battersea matters so much to his girlfriend; it’s an odd thing given how passionately committed Rob is committed to his work at ad agency but time and again Laura comes head-to-head with a lack of understanding of who she is and what truly matters to her.
But she’s in love, right, and so she just has to keep pushing on until the logjam of romantic frustration dissipates.
“As she [Laura] drifted off to sleep, her mind ran over the cats she’d helped find new homes that month. There were some that stood out more than others, where people had shared their stories with open hearts. There was Carlos and Skittle; Lucie and Bumpkin; Wanda and Teddy; Mark and Amber; Alison and Brandy; Jack and Pie; Casey and Notch; Rufus, Alan and Santa Paws – and Enid and Felicia. And Aaron.
Nine cats, nine shared lives. Nine Christmas Days. Nine new beginnings.” (P. 188)
Perhaps not, because as much as it celebrates connection and the overcoming of loneliness in many delightful forms, The Nine Lives of Christmas is also a festively-set romantic comedy with Laura and Aaron doing a slow dance around each other than you know, you just know in your tinsel-wrapped heart is going to lead somewhere rather special.
That’s hardly a spoiler, since these sorts of warm-and-cosy Christmas novels always have a Happy Ending, but watching the long and winding road that Laura and Aaron take to finding true happiness adds another awww-worthy dimension to a novel already appealingly bursting at the seams with them.
If you have found life a massively hard slog, and in the midst of a grinding, cruel pandemic, that is likely the case, you will find much to give you pleasure in The Nine Lives of Christmas.
It may feel a little clunky and over-described at times, with dialogue so belaboured you can sometimes hear the gears ending, but overall The Nine Lives of Christmas is one of these warm hug festive reads that make you feel better about life, the universe and furry everything, and if ever there is a time for novels such as this it is now, not simply because we all feel a little worn down but with all the self-isolating, social distancing and quarantining, we all need love and connection more than ever, something this novel has in soul-affirming, life-transforming, smile-inducing spades.