Aurora’s Escapes, Emily Berry, If a Leaf Falls Press, 2016
I’ve always had a bit of a fear of cats. It stems from a stand-off I once had with a particularly moody one at a friend’s parents’ farm. It took me almost 45 minutes to walk past their cat on some stairs. Anyway, I’m a grownup now and I have had more time for the cats I’ve met over the past year or so, so I gritted my teeth, allowed my enthusiasm for the writing of Emily Berry to outweigh my nervousness around cats, and sat down to read Aurora’s Escapes.
I’m so glad I did, because whether you read it is a narrative prose poem or a miniature novelette, its 13 sections and c. 3 week timespan amount to a devastatingly creepy, gently funny, intensely sad negotiation of the human-human-animal configuration of domestic space and its emotional network of fear, care, protection and desire. I’m wary (like I would be around a cat) of quoting and giving away spoilers, but there are some amazing sequences of sentences, which tingle with the zip and excess of the New Sentence, accumulating into strangely disturbing moments: “I’m at a sewing workshop. I have Aurora in a paper bag, which I am trying to fasten her into more securely – I have a terrible fear that she will escape”.
It is a text characterised throughout by what Donna Haraway calls in her Companion Species Manifesto “significant otherness”. Fighting, escaping, resting, surprising, jumping and purring, Aurora in this text seems to be, as well as to be about what Haraway calls, “the inescapable, contradictory story of relationships – co-constitutive relationships in which none of the partners pre-exist the relating, and the relating is never done once and for all.”
And like the dog Ms Cayenne Pepper in that work, Aurora is “here to stay”, but not stay put: “There’s a fallen raincoat down there which she has made a bed on. James and I disapprove, but we feel our hands are tied.” At particular moments the text seems to veer into the surrealism of dream narrative, as though each section is a new dawn-like awakening or recalibration. In one section, the domestic scene much of the prose traverses seems to leaf outwards into new, and threatening, discoveries: “I go and look for Noreen to ask for help. My biggest worry is that Aurora might have escaped into the new room Noreen discovered, and it’s impossible to know she will be safe in there.” Elsewhere, “James has been infected by a demon or something.”
Nervy and alarmed and piqued in equal measure, I read Aurora’s Escapes with the sort of hesitation and care that I eventually negotiated Tom B’s (probably very harmless and friendly) cat, though got a lot more from the experience.