In attempting to be serious and accurate, but also whimsical, mythic and tragic, The Wildings falls short in establishing its own internal vocabulary. This results in rather cloying anachronism. Humans are referred to as Bigfeet, a cutesy touch that’s particularly grating when one realises that the cats not only use perfectly normal, and human, names for most other species, but also utter phrases like “keeping the airwaves clear”, and “wet-behindthe- whiskers”.
There are inconsistencies between passages too. Early scenes with Mara the kitten employ the baby-talk and anthromorphising tendencies of works for younger readers, with the spoken-aloud enthusiasm of Enid Blyton. Elsewhere, a recollection of an adult cat’s first season and the lining-up of suitors for mating, while continuing the cats-as-people framework, seems like it belongs in a different book. A gliding cheel weighs – with comic machine-precision – the benefits of a SD&K (swoop, dive and kill) before registering a “46% kill probability”. A council debate takes place with mythic intonation to their speech (“In the years since Tigris died, there has been little need for a Sender among us wildings”). Unintentionally comedic phrases are created when the differing approaches collide, for example: “‘WoofWOOF’, he said in contrapuntal fashion. ‘WOOFwoof! WOOF!’”
Much of the dialogue is expository, meant to establish the personality types these animals represent. There is a desire to explain everything; the twitching of whiskers, for example, doesn’t have to be qualified: “twitch in irritation”. Claws are unsheathed “reflexively”. This overwriting is prevalent in the smallest of descriptions. Instead of a kitten simply staring at a face, we read about one who “found himself staring” into that face. This makes the reading slow going, and has the effect of distancing the reader from the characters, which end up feeling a bit like variations of each other – though they are sketched out as archetypes.
However, Prabha Mallaya’s black-and-white illustrations are superb; moody and yet brimming with energy. Each one adds a touch of a setting that ultimately feels unfulfilled by the book. These gorgeous pictures provide tantalising suggestions of what a different book this could have been, perhaps with reduced text and a co-authorship for the illustrator. The Wildings is an ambitious book, but would have been helped with a little more story and a little less telling.
If I had to gripe about anything, it would be that some of the action sequences – a fight at the baoli, the long-drawn-out climactic battle with the ferals – didn’t fully hold my attention. Though written with skill and sharply observant of cat manoeuvres and the graceful litheness of their movements, these passages felt a little mechanical compared to the breeziness of the rest of the narrative.
The Wildings is, before anything else, a terrific adventure tale with a fine cast of characters, and because itcan be enjoyed wholly at that level one hesitates to over-analyse or get solemn about its themes. But “serious” and “entertaining” are not exclusive categories, and even genres that are viewed as being relatively low-engagement or non-cerebral often produce works of quiet, unselfconscious wisdom. This book has things to say about the potential for kinship between natural adversaries, about rules of conduct in a survival-of-the-fittest situation, about heroism taken to reckless extremes contrasted with reluctance to get involved at all, and about the advisability of taking only as much as you need from the world around you.
I also personally felt that with a little more of editing for consistency and several more illustrations, this could have been a book that one wanted to read and re-read. But, as it stands, it is just a good read!