On Cats: An Anthology – Introduced by Margaret Attwood (Notting Hill Editions, 2021)
It took me a long while to get into cats. For this reason, I empathise with the mother in Rebecca West’s ‘Why Mother was Frightened of Cats’ – a short extract from which is included in the new anthology On Cats – who shrieks “Take it away! Take it away!” when confronted with an unfortunate feline.
What changed my mind was seeing the transformation of close relatives when they welcomed a cat into their lives. This cherished new member of the family was loving when she wanted to be and aloof at other times, dependent on them and assertive in her needs, but also fiercely independent. These are all traits which are encapsulated in On Cats, which portrays cats in a range of roles, from pest control, housemates, freeloaders and minor irritants to friends and companions, across short stories, essays, letters, poems, and excerpts from longer works.
Sometimes, these writers remind us, we adopt cats – but cats also find and select us. We rescue cats – but they can also rescue us. While stereotypically cute kittens – and motherhood – are perhaps overrepresented in the collection, cats are far from being sentimentalised and the selected writers don’t shy away from loss or cruelty: cats often grow up and grow old with us, but just as frequently their lives are cut brutally shot, whether by intent or by accident. On Cats presents a range of cultural attitudes towards cats and how they should be kept (living in the UK, for example, I never cease to find it surprising that cats are customarily confined to live inside in many countries, as in Margaret Attwood’s introductory essay).
Highlights of the collection include an extract from ‘The Summer Book’ by Tove Jansson, which offers a lesson about learning to get along with others, and appreciate what we have, as told through a relationship with one cat – which proves to be unsatisfactory – and its replacement. Set evocatively within a Finnish family summer, and redolent of childhood longing, it’s an ideal choice for the first story. An extract from ‘My Life, So Far by Pard’, by Ursula K. Le Guin, gives an amusing cat’s eye view of the world, reinterpreting objects and interactions familiar from human life from a cat’s perspective and leading to subtle and entertaining misunderstandings. ‘A Death in the Family’ by Caitlin Moran is one of the most moving tributes you will ever read to any (previously) living creature, human or animal. Similarly poignant is ‘An Inscription at St Augustine with St Faith’s Church’, which celebrates “the bravest cat in the world”. This plucky cat guarded her kitten through German bombing in the city of London in September 1940, which destroyed the church in which she was resident. ‘Cat and Mouse in Partnership’ by Brothers Grimm lures us in with a seemingly unexpected tale of friendship between the two titular creatures – before this mismatched relationship leads to its inevitably grisly conclusion. ‘A Street Cat Named Bob’ by James Bowen, on the other hand, reads like a modern-day fairytale – a human and a feline, both down on their luck, find fortune together.
On Cats demonstrates that once we’ve met one cat, we’ve met one cat: while in some ways all cats are alike, our feline friends are just as varied in their personalities as us humans.
The collection perfectly captures humans’ relationship with felines, and the part that they play in our lives: cats can give us company, heartbreak, frustration and, perhaps best of all, humour. While we are able to enjoy the company of cats, though (at a time of their own choosing, of course), ultimately it’s futile to try to understand them.