Barney Willow is a normal twelve year-old boy. He is average height, he has a best friend called Rissa and his favourite book is The Water Babies. But life has been getting Barney down of late. His parents are divorced, his dad has mysteriously disappeared, the school bully has made Barney his favourite target, and his vile headmistress seems determined to send his education down the drain. So when Barney sees a cat lounging outside his house, he can't help but wish that he was one too. A lazy, pampered, cosy cat. Sounds lovely, doesn't it? Unfortunately, he's about to find out that you should be very careful what you wish for - and that life as a cat is a whole lot more dangerous than he could ever have imagined...
At first, I must admit, I wasn't sure if I was going to like the book or not. It is amusing and rapid-fire from the beginning, but until I got used to the style I found it a little manic and confusing. Then again, that same quality would make it a really good book to read aloud to younger children! As I settled into its rhythm it got better and better, and the general pace really picked up once Barney wasn't stuck in the helpless "Alas! Alack! No one knows it is I!" phase of his adventure. The plot became more coherent and lost its helter-skelter feel, and I was able to appreciate Haig's clever touch from a grown-up perspective even as I recognised how much a child would love the story too.
There was so much to admire here, so many flashes of genius! The characters are superb, from completely average-and-utterly-relatable Barney to the evil Miss Whipmire, whose revolting brand of all-consuming villainy reminded me of Roald Dahl's nastiest characters. The names Haig employs, on the other hand, were more Pratchett-esque, the most striking example being Mr Waffle, Barney's boring English teacher. The kitty word-play was clever too - calling someone a 'flea-brained cretin' or having an idea 'so good that it shone in her mind like an oil-sleek sardine in a can'. It really made me smile! There were some obviously educational moments - like Rissa's interest in astronomy and Barney The Cat's trip to the library - but these never felt too heavy or out of place. I also enjoyed Haig's smart-alec interjections on the role of an author and the process of writing - they reminded me of William Goldman's The Princess Bride - though they sometimes felt a little self-conscious and I thought they'd probably fly way over a child's head.
The final verdict? Despite a slightly shaky start and a few tiny misfires, this was a clever and very warm story that would be perfect for children ages 9-12 or so, and could be read aloud to slightly younger children too. To me as an adult, it was pretty much a modern children's version of books like Lady: My Life as a Bitch by Melvin Burgess and Kafka's The Metamorphosis (the latter of which is actually referenced at one point, to my delight). I think it'll be a real crowd-pleaser and a great book for kids (and their parents) to read over the school holidays - and I'm looking forward to getting stuck into Haig's adult novel The Radleys in the next few months!