Review: Cat Step by Alison Irvine (2020)

Cat Step by Alison Irvine


One mistake can unravel everything….

She only left her daughter in the car for a minute; just a quick minute whilst she ran into the shop. She barely thought twice about making the decision, but it soon began to consume her every thought. And not just her thoughts, but those of every neighbour, police officer and social security worker in a 15-mile radius. But this is her child. Surely she knows best?

After she’d made the move to a small town in Scotland, the rolling hills and blustery beaches seemed to be the perfect backdrop for her and her four-year-old daughter, Emily, to start again. It wasn’t always easy just the two of them, but Liz was sure that she could manage this time. And now this?

Sometimes, one mistake is all it takes to unravel everything. Cat Step is a lyrically sparse tale about judgement, intergenerational relationships, community, class and the expectations that we place on mothers. With sharp prose Alison Irvine has crafted a compassionate narrative that compels you to listen on.


Thank you so much to Jordan Taylor-Jones and Dead Ink for providing me with an ARC of the book in exchange for an honest review. I’d seen a few people raving about this book on Twitter, so I bumped it up the TBR, and I am glad I did.

Cat Step begins with the dramatic incident outlined in the blurb: the narrator leaves her young daughter unsupervised in the car while she pops into the shop, and a chain of events is set in motion. As a plot device, I am a massive fan of the seemingly innocuous moment that reveals itself to be a hinge on which the story pivots – when it is done well, as it is here, it is simultaneously satisfying and unnerving. In making a snap decision, one which I think any parent will understand, even if they wouldn’t do it themselves, Liz lays herself open to the very worst sort of criticism and scrutiny. The question of whether or not we are fit to be parents is agonising enough when it swirls privately in our own anxious, sleep-deprived minds: when it becomes a matter of public reckoning, it must be horrific.

The first person narrative allows Irvine to fully explore the complexities of the mother-child relationship, and the way frustration can turn to love and back again in an instant is brilliantly depicted. It reminded me a lot of Lydia Kiesling’s novel, The Golden State, which I read earlier this year – both books isolate the mothers in a new environment, allowing for an intense focus on that key relationship and what it means for the women’s identities. Both Kiesling and Irvine do important work in laying bare some of the more uncomfortable truths of parenthood, and it is refreshing to see such honesty and insight in fiction – too often the intricacies of parenting are glossed over as not interesting enough to be part of the story. Cat Step captures not only the emotions of motherhood, but also the physicality, the practicality, the mental load that mothers carry, so that even in the midst of a crisis, Liz worries about getting to nursery in time for pick up; even when she feels as if she is falling apart, she must still attend to the day-to-day business of caring for her child. It is powerful and very well done.

The writing style is equally impressive. Sparse, spare prose, not a word wasted, with sharp dialogue which cuts to the heart of the story: this is a masterclass in taut story-telling. It feels as if the author has taken a specific stopped moment in time and stretched it out, cleverly weaving in strands from the past and glimmers of the future. For me, I was less interested in the uncovering of Robbie’s secrets than I was in watching Liz’s story unfold, although I liked the narrative drive that Robbie’s past provided. Liz is such a complex and fascinating character: watching her push and push when she knows she ought to stop and walk away makes for gripping reading.

This novel is a brave, honest, unflinching look at parenting, at grief, at the imperfect but necessary nature of human connections. It is skilfully written, utterly absorbing, sprinkled with unique touches like the references to dance and the beautiful descriptions of the light on the Campsie Fells. I was captivated by this book, and I am in awe of Alison Irvine’s assured, strong voice. I am really looking forward to reading more by this author.

Cat Step by Alison Irvine is published by Dead Ink and is available to purchase here.


6 thoughts on “Review: Cat Step by Alison Irvine (2020)

  1. Ellie, this sounds like a great book. I hate to admit it, but I judged the mother for leaving her child in the car, but you know, I don’t know her, and I feel ashamed that I haven’t given her the benefit of the doubt. I think this is definitely one for the TBR pile.


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