Holy Cow is a simple book. It is simple in its style, simple in its humour and most importantly of all simple in its truth telling about Man’s broken relationship with the animal kingdom and the natural world as a whole. Yet, despite this simplicity it is a difficult book to categorise. On the one hand it reads like a children’s book with its quirky animal voices and regular need for suspension of disbelief, but on the other it uses some forthright language and imagery to hit its mark on some pretty serious subject matter.
These blurred audience lines can be both its strength and its undoing. Having come to it just after reading Mark Boyle’s Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, which is a very serious wake up call to the problems of industrialised culture, it was quite nice to spend a little time in this slightly bonkers exploration of similar concerns. I have seen other readers frustrated by the tone though and can empathise with that view, especially the grating asides for “My Editor says…” and “note to the screenwriter”.
Elsie the Cow is living in ignorant bliss. Things are okay on the farm and she has never felt the need to question it, even if she doesn’t understand why her mother is no longer around she accepts that is the way it is. Then one day her world is torn apart when a chance encounter with a television screen makes the reality of farm life (and death) starkly apparent. As she seeks a better life, inspired by stories of sacred cows in India, she is joined by Shalom, a pig who is seeking sanctuary in revulsion, and Tom the Turkey, who surely wouldn’t be eaten in a country named after him.
The main protagonists are all endearingly drawn and their adventures whilst wholly unbelievable are fast paced and fun. They plan their escape and head off for an airport all dreaming of a new life that will save them from the despair that awaits the other farmed creatures. Despite getting over some of the more obvious hurdles that occur for three animals trying to travel as humans things do not exactly go to plan, but each of there are lessons to be learnt for all of them.
The pace of the writing and its spacious layout through 209 pages mean that it is a very quick read and that feels appropriate. This is a fable that will entertain whilst also pricking your conscience but if overdone would lose its impact. If it gets a few people thinking about how their lives impact on the wider world and questioning the accepted processes of our industrial civilisation, such as factory farming and environmental destruction, then it will have served a valuable purpose. But there is a danger that it will turn as many people off as on.
Natalie’s world is turned upside down when her 9 year old daughter, Rose, collapses and is later diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Her husband is in the forces and stationed in Afghanistan leaving Natalie and Rose to come to terms with this life changing event on their own. This is chick-lit right? Well actually no. It’s a piece of magic that will sustain anyone with a beating heart in their breast and even the slightest sense of wonder and mystery.
The mechanics of the story are that as Rose and Natalie try to come to terms with the impact of diabetes on their everyday lives and their relationship they are visited by Colin, Natalie’s grandad who during World War 2 was stranded on a lifeboat with a group of other seamen after their ship was sunk by a German submarine. The two strands run together as mother and daughter uncover their relative’s diary and retell his story in order to cope with their own struggle.
It isn’t the basic ingredients that matter so much though as the result. This is a yellow brick road of a novel that when it delivers you home will have you seeing all the people you care about anew, in glorious Technicolour. The stories are authentically told, in fact they are rooted in the author’s family history, and the characters are so real that they speak to anyone who knows what it is to be alone and what it means to be connected to others.
In the book Shoeless Joe by W P Kinsella there is a moment when Ray Kinsella’s prize baseball field is under threat and the character J D Salinger (yes that one) stands up to say that the field will be saved by its magic because “The people who come here will be drawn… They’ll walk out to the bleacher and sit in shirtsleeves in the perfect evening… They’ll watch the game and it will be as if they knelt in front of a faith healer, or dipped themselves in magic waters where a saint once rose like a serpent and cast benedictions to the wind like peach petals.”
How to Be Brave shares the same magic that Ray Kinsella’s “Field of Dreams” possessed. It makes you want to snuggle up with your own children in a book nook and hold them close. It makes you want to return to your own childhood and hear stories from your parents and grandparents of times when they were young, before you knew them. Colin’s story is exceptional and Natalie and Rose’s story is moving, but they are windows to our own stories too.
I will be honest and say that I was approached to review the book because of the lack of male perspectives in the arranged blog tour and it is not something that I would have naturally picked up from the bookshop, but I am delighted that it found its way to me. The writing is enticing and accessible and the stories poignant and affecting. It is a novel about the power of story and also a novel that proves that power.