This offbeat tale offers an uneasy mix of magical transformation, violence and bullying, and the dreary misery of family dysfunction.
Ultimately, Barney Willow’s sad and odd story drags on a bit too long. Depressed by his parents’ divorce and tormented by a schoolmate, Barney is manipulated by a cruel adult into wishing his life away—literally. After magically switching bodies with a small cat named Maurice, Barney must discover how to regain his humanity. Pursued by Miss Whipmire, the school principal who encouraged his metamorphosis for reasons of her own, Barney seeks protection from his best friend Rissa and his mother. While they eventually understand his outlandish predicament and do their best to help, it’s Barney’s (mysteriously) absent father who provides the information needed to return to his former life. Haig’s writing has somewhat Snicket-ian overtones with occasional coy authorial asides and plenty of pain, suffering, danger and despair. The plot offers some surprises but also feels repetitious in spots. Characterization is brisk but generally effective, with familiar types occupying the background: the quirky best friend with supportive, artsy parents, the vicious bully who turns out to have a surprising weak spot, the harried mum trying hard to carry on in the face of domestic difficulties.
Simultaneously predictable and quirky, this will likely appeal to the author’s fans but may not attract new readers. (Fantasy. 8-12)