McKay’s new book has three protagonists, Max aged fourteen, Abi aged eleven and Louis aged six. They are a mixed family, Abi’s father having married Louis’s and Max’s mother. Abi’s mother died when Abi was a baby. As happens in McKay stories, the parents are often absent. The father is a doctor with a busy schedule and the mother is an international aid worker who spends much of her time working abroad. Max and Abi cope well enough with the parents’ absence, Abi seeking refuge in books. But the young Louis finds the situation hard to deal with.
Coping with loneliness and neglect, Louis creates a big cat named Iffen. As Louis’s sense of isolation deepens, so Iffen becomes more real and more aggressive. The big cat begins to leave physical marks of his presence such as claw indentations on the rug in Louis’s bedroom and a big scratch on Louis’s ankle. As adults, mother and father of course cannot see the big cat. But Abi and Max can. They embark on a quest, to return Iffen to the world whence he came and thus to restore Louis’s mental freedom.
As readers of McKay will have come to expect, this is a book driven by a powerful imagination and a deep sense of what a family means. This novel has an intense focus on the power of literature and literacy as Louis learns to become a reader. The book highlights potent intertextualities with (for example) Narnia and Anne Frank’s diary. McKay expertly describes that imaginary space created by works of fiction that enable us the readers to cope with challenges in our day to day real world. The characterisation in the novel is excellent. Louis is impressively intelligent yet at the same time as endearingly innocent as a six year old should be.
From a strictly story-telling perspective the absence of the parents serves to focus attention on the children and is therefore a necessity. But if this reviewer is obliged to cite one minor flaw in this impressive work it is that the parental figures, being absent so much of the time, lack reality in the narrative. If they are (as we imagine them to be) caring parents, it is hard to reconcile their feelings with their continued absence from the young children.