Advice for Strays by Justine Kilkerr

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Advice for Strays by Justine Kilkerr

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Jericho the lion is Marnie's stalwart imaginary friend twice in her life when she needs help. A beautifully constructed examination of childhood with a troubled parent and the reverberations in his daughters' adult relationships.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: April 2011
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099535263

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If you have ever fancied a grown up version of The Tiger who came to Tea, the cover of this Vintage edition should hook you into reading Justine Kilkerr's first novel. Here sits a sad and patient-looking lion, and the female figure beside him, hidden by an umbrella, has that same vulnerable look of mother and child in Judith Kerr's classic children's picture book. At first this seems like a ridiculous connection, but thinking about it later I'm struck with the analogy, not to mention the similarity in authors' names.

I was rather misled by the cover's advertising blurb which seemed to promise young women characters in a chicklit story about love, loss, family and a very unusual friendship. How wrong I was!

Imagine, if you can, how an imaginary friend as large and strong as a lion or tiger would appear to a child. Despite his strength, his thoughts, emotions and words are trapped in the unsophisticated boundaries of the child's undeveloped mind. Jericho the lion has, figuratively and literally, no claws, because they have been removed by the humans in the circus where he is confined. He has little substance, other than as a sensory buffer protecting Marnie, the heroine, during a difficult childhood period when her father plunges the family into the awfulness of mental illness.

Compare this figment with an older lion who is commensurate with the more experienced imagination of a young woman. Now the lion can use his knuckles to deadly effect, even minus the claws. His protective emotions are more complicated, since he can puzzle right from wrong, albeit it in a limited way. He understands the transience of his first substantiation, because the young Marnie grew out of his presence once before. He stinks, every time we meet him. He's bitter about the past and inclined to casual savagery. The old, pre-loved woolly animal co-exists with today's heavyweight, wild predator. Yet the young woman has just as strong a need of her imaginary friend in these bad times, and he will never let her down.

Oh, the book took some reading. Several times I put it down, without being really hooked by the competent story of a sick father slipping away, or the pitiful attempts of his damaged daughters to cope with the disappearance which has them frantic, when no-one else is bothered. I wondered whether to finish the book. It was the originality of Kilkerr's brilliant verbs that kept me jogging on to the end. For instance, opening a page at random, I found woodland where: You can hear the beetles whispering among the rotten branches, the worms mumbling below the bluebells.

And then, once I'd finished, in that aftertaste that really only comes with the best of books, I realised how cleverly the author had woven in her grand design. Her theme is vast, nothing less than the damage of abandonment: by parents wrought on their children, by men on women, friends on friends. She knows without doubt about the fragility of humans and their relationships. The world she depicts is complete, savage and real. I shall never doubt the need for imaginary friends again.

Many thanks to the publishers for sending this book, which I'll be re-reading again very soon.

Suggestions for further reading:

If you enjoyed this book, I'd suggest trying another recent publication, Tim Pears' Landed, in which the central character is thrown into emotional turmoil by tragic events in his family.

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