Kelly Link’s fiction always brings to my mind the old-timey phrase “spinning a yarn.” Although I’ve learned this idiom has nautical origins, for me, it evokes spindles, spinning wheels, and the realm of folktales. And while Link tends to reinvent her own style so that no two stories are alike, all of them can be identified for their craftsmanship, spun as they are into bewitching, twisting knots made of the gossamer threads of language itself.
In her previous collections, Link has dipped into fantasy, horror, magic realism, science fiction, and the list goes on. Her writing is frequently described as “hard to classify.” In contrast, White Cat, Black Dog—Link’s first book since 2015’s Get in Trouble—stands out for its straightforwardness. It has a unified mission that is easy to sum up: This is a book of retellings, and Link isn’t shy about that. Following each of her story’s titles is a second, parenthetical title, alerting the reader to the traditional folktale she retells. But true to form, each story takes a different approach to retelling.
Opening the collection—and providing one of the two eponymous animals—is “The White Cat’s Divorce.” Here, Link retraces many of the same major plot points as the French fairy tale “The White Cat.” In the original, a wealthy king sends his three sons on a series of quests, ostensibly to see which will become his heir. There are classic tropes: the rule of threes, talking animals, and magical transformations. In Link’s version, these elements are infused with a contemporary context. The rich father is a member of our modern billionaire class. He is obsessed with maintaining his youth, receiving “blood transfusions from adolescent donors.” While absurd, this pursuit is not altogether far-fetched given the current hobbies of our planet’s wealthiest men. We follow the youngest son, a boyish man desperate for parental love—like so many children of billionaires. Lost in a snowstorm, he asks a group of cats for help. “Please, can you assist me? I have AAA, but my phone has no reception out here.” The story is full of such one-liners, starting firmly in a fairy tale but tendriling out to reach us with our roadside assistance and our overreliance on smartphones. The cats—by the way—work on a marijuana farm in Colorado.
In “The Game of Smash and Recovery,” Hansel and Gretel are cast not into our world, but into science fiction. This story’s protagonist is Anat, a young girl who lives with her brother. She has limited memory of her past or understanding of her present. We learn that the siblings are on a planet inhabited by vampires. Like the original fairy tale, their parents have abandoned them. The fun—and tragedy—of this story is putting the pieces together, following the proverbial breadcrumbs, if you will, along with Anat toward the revelatory conclusion.
“Skinder’s Veil” is the final story, a reimagining of “Snow-White and Rose-Red” that spins a layered philosophical and psychological tale. “Once upon a time there was a graduate student,” it begins. And so we meet Andy, who is struggling through his dissertation and annoyed with his roommate. He’s agreed to house-sit at a remote cabin that belongs to someone named Skinder. There are only two rules to follow: allow any friend of Skinder’s to come inside, but never let Skinder in. This story features quirky characters, embedded fairy tales, and a puzzle that circles around and in on itself. It also features a black dog so that, in a lovely symmetry with the opening story, we have our bookended title.
It is a standout in the collection and I am left still thinking about it. Elsewhere in the book, Link reimagines a Scottish ballad, a Norwegian tale, and German stories collected by the Brothers Grimm. Link brings us a love story that takes us to hell, a main character stuck at an airport hotel, and a post-plague future where corpses must be left on display to ward off a vague evil.
A reader may have varying levels of familiarity with the original stories retold here. But folktales are, by nature, authorless. If we are familiar with any one title, it is only with one instance of one story—a single author’s take on an age-old myth. To say it differently, every fairy tale is a fairy tale retelling. To read this book is to be reminded of that. Each of Link’s stories feels both brand new and yet somehow, magically, like it has always existed. It is as though Kelly Link is only the latest in a long series of storytellers to pick up these threads and spin.
White Cat, Black Dog
By Kelly Link
Published March 28, 2023
Rebekah Bergman's debut novel, The Museum of Human History, is forthcoming from Tin House in August. Read more: rebekahbergman.com