“Not for everyone” – A Cat’s Cradle by Carly Rheilan

Ralph Sneddon, the protagonist in A Cat’s Cradle, spent 14 years in prison for killing a little girl named Sonia after sexually assaulting her. He returns home at the age of 31 and is greeted by a vituperative mother:

“You ruined my life. You were never any good. I wish you had never been born.”

The novel opens on a scene where Ralph is being interrogated by police or psychiatric officials. He recounts his last time with seven-year-old Mary:

“[He] would remember the final moments–when Mary was struggling in his coat, and he covered her face, when he felt her life in his hands. . . and he knew what it would cost him but he did not care.”

He claims he acted heroically because in “those few pure moments of glory. . . . I didn’t have a reason. I did it because she was there.”

Young Mary is having a rough life. The teasing and tormenting from her two older brothers have accelerated since their father moved out six months earlier. She has no friends at school, and her mother is overwhelmed by their increasingly fragile finances. After meeting “Mr. Ralph” during an attempt to rescue a stray cat, she starts to spend time with him on Saturdays, although she doesn’t understand why her special friend insists that she keep their friendship secret.

Ralph is scared by her, overwhelmed, and ambivalent about their relationship. He blames her, deluding himself that Mary is assertive and in control:

“There was something warming in the way that [Mary] did not shrink from him as others did. . . He had merely acquiesced and even then reluctantly.” He wants to avoid another bad outcome like with Sonia: “He would be careful, infinitely careful. He would be a good friend. He had always liked little girls.”

As their games turn more dangerous, the novel takes a remarkably daring turn in its depiction of the graphic scenes between Ralph and Mary.

One afternoon after stumbling into a pond, they remove their wet clothes and playfully dry each other off. Mary is too young to completely understand the risk and actually welcomes the closeness:

“She liked the feel of his hands on her skin, and . . . the secrecy and specialness. And most of all she liked the fact that he loved her again and hadn’t gone away.”

Mary remembers playful tickling games with her two older brothers. She has also discovered a strange, thrilling sensation related to the slit between her legs, although she is confused by the approbation from her mother about her vagina.

Mary is innocent. She is obviously not responsible, she obviously hasn’t consented to her assault, especially because she doesn’t really understand what is transpiring. She is not in control, although Ralph’s diseased mind convinces him otherwise.

“She knew there was something not right about the game. As each step played out, it had seemed quite all right, but in total there was something. . . that was not to be approved of.”

Let me be clear. Mary is sexually assaulted. She starts crying and pleads for Ralph to stop. However, Rheilan dramatises the scene with deft nuance that avoids simplistic black and white, degenerate and victim roles. That is a difficult literary high-wire act.

Mary’s fate is wound up in a web of religion, family expectations, and misguided assumptions about the human ability to change:
“There are moments in everyone’s life where plans for the future split off into parallel tracks, each going off at their own due pace, wholly incompatible but each of them, separately believed.”

Any Cop?: Novels about paedophiles aren’t for everyone.

 

Chris Oleson

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