A Street Cat Named Bob is part of the extensive and well-selling genre of sentimental true stories about animals, to be filed alongside Marley and Me and Dewey the Library Cat. In this case, street musician James Bowen tells the story of how ginger tom Bob appeared on the doorstep of his sheltered housing one evening and just never left. Bob and his human charm London: what, after all, is more adorable than a cat that catches the bus every day? And Bob gives James the impetus he needs to kick his methadone addiction and start turning his life around.
That’s…pretty much all there is to say. The bits about the cat are predictably heartwarming – and he is still alive and well at the end of the book (indeed, there are two sequels), avoiding the sting in the tail of most animal fiction. Equally predictably, Bowen is no stylist, even with the help of professional writer Garry Jenkins. So, though I did find myself racing through some of the tenser bits of the story – Bowen going cold turkey with Bob at his side, Bob getting lost in London, Bowen being arrested after being framed by hostile Underground staff – I don’t think I was really as emotionally engaged as I could have been.
I do think, though, that it’s a slightly less egregious bit of sentimentality than most animal books, shining a light on a social ill that doesn’t really get talked about very much in Britain: homelessness. Bowen may not have been sleeping on the streets during the period he describes in A Street Cat Named Bob, but his life circumstances were very precarious indeed. He worked as a Big Issue seller after his fears for Bob’s safety drove him out of playing street music, and this is where Street Cat is doing its most important work if not its most interesting – because we all see Big Issue sellers on the streets on a regular basis, and this book, with its straightforward narration of what it’s like to try to sell the magazine, I think gives us an opportunity for empathy. We shouldn’t need books to make us empathise with the people our society dispossesses; but, because we are human and imperfect, we do.
A Street Cat Named Bob is, in sum, a short, easy read which opens a window on homelessness. It won’t set the Thames on fire, but read it if you like cats.