Book review: ‘Juniper’, by Ross Jeffery

Almost sexual encounters with cats add to the peculiarities of a genuinely unique debut novel.

Let’s not pussyfoot around here. This is a book in which there is a remarkable focus on cat penises. And, perhaps surprisingly, it’s all the better for it.

Ross Jeffery’s debut novel Juniper is a post-apocalyptic horror in which the starving residents of the titular forgotten Midwestern town, Juniper, are forced to rely on monstrous interbred cats for food.

This provides the backdrop for what is an utterly odd and totally dark story in which one of our protagonists, Betty, discovers one of these grizzly feral felines battered and dying on the side of the road.

It is a fascinating decision for Jeffery to focus so heavily on Betty – a character on the very edge of a society that itself is largely forgotten and unwanted by the rest of the world. It heightens the sense of isolation we feel, and helps us understand why this person living as she does on the edge of reality might wish for some company – feline or otherwise. And so, when Betty decides to nurse this dying cat back to health, the die is cast.

Now, while there is not quite any feline fellatio, there is undoubtedly an uncomfortable sexual undertone to many of the scenes in which Betty interacts with this giant ginger Tom. But this is nothing compared to the searing horror Jeffery evokes in perhaps the most arresting scene in the book; in which Betty castrates Tom the cat – and we, as the reader, are treated to the most intimate dissecting detail of this surgery, stomachs turning as she pops out testes “like a skinned lychee” and separates them from the sinewy chord that attached them to the cat’s body.

There is considerable writing skill on display in such scenes – and we can attest that this is one of those rare descriptions that will live in the mind and memory long after reading. The surgical precision of the writing, the clean descriptions, contrasted with the horror of what is being described, creates a genuine physical reaction during reading that very few writers are able to evoke from their readers. This alone should mark Jeffery out as a writer to watch, and he deserves the praise he has received from other authors and literary professionals.  

It must be said that there are moments in the book where it feels as though it could have done with a second line edit. There are inconsistent changes in tense – every now and then, and seemingly apropos of nothing, shifting sentence by sentence from past to present. And occasional typos appear, so we see a cat’s balls “saved clean” rather than “shaved”. But these should not detract from the real strength of this book, which is the story itself.

The characters are peculiar, stark raving mad in some cases; and within them we see many of the worst parts of humanity starkly reflected back at us. There is greed, aggression and anger and fear. In the character of Klein, we are presented with a truly evil domestic abuser – and the feline fate that he meets is absolutely befitting. But there is also something more innately human, which we see clearly in the characters of Betty and Janet; a yearning for companionship.

So, yes, this is a book that has a lot of cats and cat penises in it. But it’s also a book about human beings. The relationships we have; flawed as they may be. And the way we try to cope with the reality in which we are confronted with. In this way, more than anything, this is a book about human existence. It’s peculiar; sure. But then, so are we.

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