The Stray Cats of Homs by Eva Nour (translated by Agnes Broomé )

I put this review up on my blog way back in April, before COVID-19 turned the publishing world upside down. The book has now been published, and rather than let the initial review languish, hidden, I am re-posting it.

‘Sami’s teenage years were about walking a fine line between different sets of expectations.’

Inspired by actual events, fictionalised to protect individuals, this is an account of growing up, of life in Homs in Syria.  Of the impact of civil war.  Sami grows up in Homs, with his family and friends.  He attends school, has pets, and thinks about the future.  But life in a country at war with itself is never comfortable or predictable. Life in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria is increasingly difficult.

‘A cat has seven souls in Arabic.  In English cats have nine lives.  You probably have both nine lives and seven souls, because otherwise I don’t know how you’ve made it this far.’

Sami attempts to evade military conscription and succeeds, for a while.  But he is caught, imprisoned, and then undergoes military training.  He leaves the Army just before the Siege of Homs begins.  While most of his family manage to leave Homs before the fighting intensifies, Sami and his brother remain.

 ‘Fear is like poison.  If you let it grow roots, you will be lost for ever.’

This is a story about survival, about lives torn apart, about experiencing the best and worst of humanity.  We readers are observers, voiceless and unable to intervene.  It makes for harrowing reading: both explicit and implicit damage.

‘There were things the camera couldn’t capture; there were wounds that didn’t show on the outside.’

There may be a happier ending for Sami, but not yet for the people of Syria.

‘When we were born, what did any of us know about what our lives would be like?  Nothing.  We knew nothing.’

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Random House UK, Transworld Publishers for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith