Matt Haig’s To be a Cat is a feline version of the body-swap films that contemplate what it would be like to wake up in someone else’s body. In this case, as the title suggests, the “body swap” takes place between a boy and a cat.
Barney Willow discovers that cats have a far superior intellect to humans and, like others before him, he wished he was a cat. Having got his wish, his struggle now is to survive the malevolent ambitions of his erstwhile headteacher—who wants him dead—and to find a way back into his own body. To be a Cat will certainly appeal to readers of his earlier book, Shadow Forest, which won the Smarties Gold Award.
Haig says the idea for the story stemmed from an adult book he wrote, his début The Last Family in England. He said: “I always like to look at life from a different perspective, and The Last Family in England is told from a dog’s perspective. To be a Cat looks at life from a cat’s point of view. Cats have so much mystery and a magical quality about them.
“I didn’t really know how the book was going to develop, I just had the first chapter where this boy wakes up in a Kafkaesque style, not knowing what is going on or why, and discovers he is a different creature. I was almost as confused as the central character about why he was a cat, and had to work hard to make the story work.
“In the end, Barney has to gain the strength and self-knowledge to not be a cat anymore. It’s a nice metaphor about being proud of who you are, which I’ve never managed—that’s why I’m a writer.
“The bad character, the headteacher Miss Whipmire, was the most fun to write. Writers sometimes forget that kids like that kind of ‘badness’—but Roald Dahl always had some borderline schizophrenic character going on. They are fun and give you the opportunity for some really cruel and nasty dialogue. It’s pantomime, really.
“I don’t give the story a completely happy ending; I think sometimes it’s a little cheap to do so especially in children’s stories. For every child reading a book, there is something in their life that is not quite 100%, and it’s hard to tell a child that happiness is when every piece of the jigsaw is in the right place. It’s more nourishing for a child to see that they can still find happiness even if not everything is in the right place in their life.”
To Be a Cat by Matt Haig is published by The Bodley Head.