MATTHEW FLINDER’S CAT by BRYCE COURTNAY
Billy O’Shannessy, once a prominent barrister, is now on the street where he sleeps on a bench outside the State Library. Above him on the window sill rests a bronze statue of Matthew Flinders’ cat, Trim. Ryan is a ten-year-old, a near street kid heading for all the usual trouble. The two meet and form an unlikely friendship. Appealing to the boy’s imagination by telling him the story of the circumnavigation of Australia as seen through Trim’s eyes, Billy is drawn deeply into Ryan’s life and into the Sydney underworld. Over several months the two begin the mutual process of rehabilitation.
Matthew Flinders’ Cat is a modern-day story of a city, its crime, the plight of the homeless and the politics of greed and perversion. It is also a story of the human heart, with an enchanting glimpse into our past from the viewpoint of a famous cat.
I listened to the audio book, an unabridged version and was captivated. The story is a real emotional rollercoaster, inducing feelings of anger, disgust, sympathy, empathy, admiration and tenderness – to name but a few. At the beginning you wonder how an educated man can become reduced to such circumstances, from successful and comparatively wealthy professional to a ‘derelict’ or street person. As the story unfolds you realize that Billy’s past is complicated and heart-breaking as he freely admits he made terrible mistakes, but tear apart some of the carefully cultivated exterior and it is clear that Billy is a tender hearted and honest man, whose regrets about his life’s choices eventually lead him to try and make amends in whatever way he can.
Ryan, an incredibly intelligent little boy has a disadvantaged background yet he works hard to help his drug addict mother and his elderly grandmother. He is resourceful, clever, sometimes cheeky, but he is immensely likable and very real. Billy and Ryan’s friendship is peculiar and unexpected, yet very heart-warming, and Billy’s determination to help the child as he veers toward a dangerous future is unrelenting. Both characters became very real for me and I often felt as if Billy was teaching me about life, a life I knew nothing about, as he travelled on his journey of redemption. I really learned so much about his world and the way alcoholics think and feel, (although one cannot generalize), and also how difficult it is to shake off the problems you encounter once you have sunk this low. With the best will in the world, you’d have to be pretty strong to be able to recover just by yourself. Billy and Ryan highlighted these problems. Every city in every country has these issues to one degree or another, but how often do we turn a blind eye? Bryce Courtenay doesn’t preach, but he does open our eyes and question whether we feel comfortable in a society which discards people like litter on the street.
Mixed in with the main story is a separate thread about a famous cat, Trim, who belonged to a famous navigator, Matthew Flinders. Flinder’s, although born in Donnington in England, spent much of his working life charting the coast of Australia and he is credited with naming the country. He is therefore a renowned character, as is his cat who accompanied him on his travels. When Ryan expresses an interest in the statue of Trim, Billy begins to tell him the story of the navigator’s cat, and with a cat’s view point and a few elaborations along the way, the story becomes very compelling. It forges a strong relationship between man and boy which proves indestructible and saves them both. At no time did I feel that the outcome of this relationship or the events surrounding it were inevitable. The story twists and turns and the reader is buffeted around, sent reeling from one surprise to another, or suddenly stripped of former beliefs and value systems. The story is gripping, but so too is the tale of Trim and they become ever more entwined until eventually the work of the one is done and saves the other. The lesson in history was appreciated too!
I loved this book. It is possibly the best book I’ve read in many years and I recommend it to everyone who is not afraid to look deep into their own conscience and admit that they too could be Billy, or that they could do more for the many unknown Billies out there in the urban margins. This is a book which tackles important issues and asks questions of politicians and society. I hope that somewhere, someone with the power to change things is listening, and that we as citizens give them our full support.