Touch not the Cat (by Mary Stewart)

I first came across one or two of the late Mary Stewart’s books when I was a teenager; I found them quite tense but very well-written with characters I cared about. Over the years I’ve collected quite a few more, mostly from charity shops or church bookstalls.

I first read ‘Touch not the Cat’ in 2003, so it was long overdue for a re-read. Happily I had entirely forgotten the story - at least, I thought I had. It’s written by a young woman called Bryony, who has been working abroad when she gets the news that her father has just died. She doesn’t get the news by normal means, however; it’s a kind of telepathic message from one of her male relatives. A little confusingly she refers to him as her ‘lover’, although she doesn’t know for sure who he is. And yes, this is totally bizarre but has to be accepted as a premise for the rest of the book.

The early chapters are somewhat mystifying in a different way, with several people briefly introduced. I felt a bit overwhelmed at first, and re-read paragraphs more than once when I lost track of where Bryony was, or who she was referring to. However, the story soon gets going, mostly based in the town where her family home, Ashley Court, is located. Due to an ancient entail, Bryony will not inherit it. Instead, her oldest cousin Emory will do so. She doesn’t much like Emory; she’s keener on his twin James, and rather hopes that he is going to be revealed as her secret lover…

The whole novel takes place over a very short period, as Bryony returns home, meets the family who have been renting the estate, spends time with local friends, and attempts to unravel the somewhat mysterious last words ascribed to her father. The pace is very good, keeping me reading well past my bedtime some nights, and becoming almost impossible to put down in the final chapters.

I guessed almost from the start who was going to turn out to be Bryony’s telepathic ‘lover’, so perhaps I subconsciously recalled this from my first reading. It seemed as if the clues were there, though, and she was being a bit tunnel-visioned. Yet I was never entirely certain who could be trusted. I also had a vague memory of the scene of the climax of the book, involving an old pavilion, which I found tense and thrilling the first time I read it, but this time I was pretty sure things would pan out in a positive way.

The phrase ‘Touch not the cat’ refers to a family motto, although cats appear now and again in the story in places that add to the tension. The practical details of the drama at the end of the book left me rather bewildered, but it didn’t matter that I could not picture the geography of the scene, nor exactly what happens. And as everything was told from Bryony’s perspective, perhaps it was deliberate.

Written as contemporary fiction in the mid 1970s it inevitably feels dated, yet some of the discussions and ethical beliefs are entirely current. As the 21st century progresses, books like this will probably be seen as valuable sources of social history.

All in all, I enjoyed this very much. Recommended to anyone, adult or teen, who enjoys light thrillers with a gentle romantic theme and a touch of mysticism.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

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