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December 2001
 
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The Cat's Cradle-Book by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1940)

Remembered today primarily for her wonderful The Kingdoms of Elfin (1977)--whose component tales, thanks to the defensive patronage of editor William Maxwell, hold the distinction of being some of the only archetypical fantasy stories ever published by The New Yorker--Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) exhibited an abiding interest in the fantastic from the publication of her very first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926). The Cat's Cradle- Book finds her at the height of her powers.

In the framing introduction, a nameless woman arrives at a simple country cottage, meets a handsome young man with many cats, converses enjoyably with both cats and man, has impromptu sex with the cottager, and thus becomes inextricably and tragically linked to his plan to disseminate the global folklore of felines he's painstakingly collected. The sixteen stories that follow are ostensibly these ailurine myths.

Few of the tales actually feature cats, since "the proper study of catkind is man," their capricious patrons. Instead, Warner offers a range of hilarious, grim, stunning, frequently Kafkaesque narratives that defiantly refuse to resolve into simple morals. Eminently quotable ("Stupid prayers are often the soonest answered, for no deity can stand them."), Warner carries Dorothy Parker's kind of brittle, elegant wit to its apotheosis. And her quiet feminism, in such tales as "The Trumpeter's Daughter" and "Bread for the Castle" still strikes home.

In "Virtue and the Tiger," a holy man wreaks havoc on an innocent predator with his accumulated saintliness. Warner's art favors cats, but focuses on humans as the real beasts.

—Paul Di Filippo

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