Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Bobcat - Katherine Forbes Riley

Summary: The Bobcat is Katherine Forbes Riley's magical debut novel in which Laurelie, a young art student who suffers in the aftermath of a fraternity rape, has grown progressively more isolated and fearful.  She transfers to a small college in Vermont and retreats into her imagination, experiencing the world through her art, comfortable only in the company of the child she babysits, and most at ease in the woods. One day she encounters an injured bobcat -- and the hiker who has been following it for hundreds of miles.  In them Laurelie recognizes something as reclusive and wary as herself.  As she moves with them toward recovery and reconnection she also finds her voice as an artist, and a sense of purpose, maybe even a future, comes into sight.  Then the child goes missing in the woods, threatening the fragile peace she has constructed.

With the hypnotic intensity of Emily Fridlund's The History of Wolves and Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest, Riley has created a mesmerizing love story in lush gorgeous prose that examines art, science, and the magic of human chemistry.  (Summary from back of book - Image from

**This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review.**

My Review:  For the most part, I read whatever I feel like reading and don't generally accept books from publishers for review.  I've been burned too many times by books that publicize well but end up being real stinkers when they come in the mail.  These glorified doorstops usually end up sitting in my to-be-reviewed stack making me feel guilty for not wanting to finish them.  I am telling you all this so that when I say that The Bobcat is the first book I have accepted for review in years, you'll understand the significance of that statement.

The main character of The Bobcat is a young woman named Laurelie, who is struggling to cope with the aftermath of sexual trauma.  In an effort to escape the fear that lurks around every corner of her college town, Laurelie moves to another town and into a small house on the edge of the forest where she spends most of her time in the wood, accompanied by a young boy in her care.  One day the two explorers stumble upon an injured bobcat being followed by a mysterious hiker.  And from there, the story goes to interesting places that I will let you discover on your own...

In the opening chapters, Laurelie is nearly overcome with anxiety as she navigates daily life -- skittish, terrified, and reclusive.  The writing was so evocative that I often succumbed to a case of emotional transference as my anxiety rose and fell congruent with hers.  I thought the author did a fantastic job of capturing the physical, emotional, and psychological reactions of someone who has endured significant trauma (i.e. the increased dread of social situations, avoidance of certain activities, or the visceral reaction someone might have faced with a crowded room, an unexpected noise, or a close talker).   Even fictionalized, it was interesting to see the effects of trauma so authentically rendered on paper. 

As the story evolves and different characters weave in and out of her life, Laurelie settles ever so slowly into a new way of being.  I loved following her transformation, not only emotionally, but through her artwork, and in her interactions with other characters.  The hiker, specifically, seemed to sense her apprehension and she in turn sensed his own, as if they had a mutual, unspoken understanding that they would approach each other with care.  In her depiction of their physical relationship, the author often focused on things like movement, breathing, and facial expressions.  I didn't understand why until much later in the story when a key revelation sharpened things up a bit and it all made more sense.  Somehow Lorelie's nervousness around the hiker gradually dissipated and all that heightened awareness, transformed into a gentle romance that felt natural and inescapable -- like gravity or the pull of the tides.  It may not have been your stereotypical romantic fluff, but that was just fine by me.

One of my favorite aspects of the book was a writing technique that I have never seen before (well, never noticed before).  The author conveyed Laurelie's reclusivity and the protective distance she was trying to maintain from the world by not giving the other character's proper names.  Rather, Laurelie chose not to think about them in terms of their names, mentally referring to them as simply 'the hiker', 'the boy', 'the landlady,' 'the linguistics major', etc.   I love that something as simple as a name, or the lack thereof, could evoke a feeling of self-imposed isolation around the main character.  And okay, so it took me a chapter (or three) before I realized what she was doing, but I was floored by the effect.  This effectively kept everyone at an emotional arms length, pinned on the fringes of the story, until Laurelie was ready to let them in. Towards the end of the story, a name or two would subtly tip-toe its way onto the page and WHAM take me completely by surprise.  Those 'namings' felt particularly significant and (I think) symbolized another step on Laurelie's gradual progression the path toward healing.

Most books I read are one-and-done's.  I open the book, read it with varying degrees of enjoyment, finish, write my review, and move on to the next book.  Not so with The Bobcat.  Okay, yes, I will do all those things, but this one will linger a bit.  As I sit here trying to coax my thoughts out through my fingers, there is this twisted knot in the center of my chest - a feeling I get when I am teetering on an emotional precipice.  I am equal parts glad I read the book and sad that it is over.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  No swearing that I can recall.  Although the story begins after Laurelie is raped, the event is revisited in her memories.  The author's description of the rape is fairly PG (if you could ever call something like that PG).  There is one sex scene that is fairly mild/vague (and strangely cathartic given the character's past)

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