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‘White Cat, Black Dog’ Review: Brutal Honesty Wrapped in Whimsical Stories

3 Stars

Cover of Kelly Link's "White Cat, Black Dog."
Cover of Kelly Link's "White Cat, Black Dog." By Courtesy of Penguin Random House
By Sophia N. Downs, Crimson Staff Writer

In her newest short story collection, “White Cat, Black Dog,” Kelly Link draws inspiration from a variety of fairy-tales to create a collection of twisting stories that blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy, past and present, ambiguity and clarity. Link’s voice and clear awareness of cultural nuance enables her to do so effectively.

The opening story, “The White Cat’s Divorce,” centers on a rich man living a life of luxury who sends his three sons off to find him a small dog. Unlike “The White Cat,” the original French fairy tale that Link’s story is based on, this quest takes the rich man’s youngest son to a cannabis factory in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado — one that is, of course, run by a talking cat.

“The mechanics of how I can speak are really of no great interest, and I’m afraid that I don’t really understand it myself,” the cat says. In this story and each tale she presents, Link toes the line between immersive, magical world building and honest self-awareness of the ridiculousness of, say, a talking cat.

Link offers an entirely new imagining of this fairytale by taking the thread of the original story and winding it around a radically different place and cast. The original story is recognizable, but it has been repackaged for this day and age. The same can be said of some of the other stories of this collection, while in others the threading is so loose the original story is hardly recognizable.

Take, for example, “Skinder’s Veil,” Link’s take on the Brothers Grimm fairytale “Snow-White and Rose-Red.” In Link’s reimagining, two little girls living in a cabin in the woods are recharacterized as one fourth-year graduate student, Andy Sims, who desperately needs a quiet place to finish his dissertation. A bear still visits, as in the original story, but this time, the bear appears after Andy ingests hallucinogens provided by a visitor to the cabin.

Meanwhile, Link’s reimagining of “The Boy Who Did Not Know Fear,” titled “The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear,” doesn’t include a single male character. Many stories in the collection feature little details like this: things that are just odd enough to stick out and cause a reader to question what they think they may know.

Link effectively transplants stories of European origin to places in the United States and elsewhere. “The Musicians of Bremen” may originally have taken place in Bremen, Germany, but Link’s adaptation, “The White Road,” primarily finds its setting in a post-apocalyptic American South. Arkansas may not be Bremen, but it serves as an effective location for the tale all the same.

For better or for worse, Link has her finger on the cultural pulse. She reflects modern-day society in each story from the awkward (the morning after a one-night stand) to the little discomforts of life (sitting naked upon a rattan chair) to the highest-end luxuries (Balenciaga and green velvet suits).

Link showcases her mastery of narrative with her varying storylines and endings — some a clear happily-ever-after, others left more ambiguous. Link’s blunt, borderline crass tone and straightforward voice become the glue that holds the stories together. One story, “The Game of Smash and Recovery,” contains no true dialogue, only indirect statements. Some of her stories offer a limited first person perspective, while others are narrated by an omniscient third person. Regardless, Link’s humorous, eerie voice remains the same.

The stories show a keen attention to human language, including the spoken “filler” sayings that are often removed in writing (“what I mean to say is” or the interjection of “I believe” in between two statements in a sentence), lending a sense of extreme realism to the fantastical stories. Despite her explicit clarity, Link still manages to harness remarkable powers of description. In one moment, she describes the air quality in hell as “velvety” and “singed.”

Such is the writing of Kelly Link — she paints a portrait close enough to reality to be recognizable, yet not so close as to allow the reader to know what’s truly going on. In these stories, Link offers a portrait of what society looks like today and what it may look like tomorrow. It’s for the reader to determine if these worlds are desirable or not.

—Staff writer Sophia N. Downs can be reached at

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