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3 december 2021

Not till I rummaged around in the clearance section of a used-book store recently did I learn that New York Review Books, which has such an excellent general list, also does a series of children's classics. Or did at one point. I saw Barbara Sleigh's Carbonel, an animal fantasy from the 1950s, handsomely reprinted by NYRB … sometime or other; the book has no publication date.

Carbonel is a sweet but delicately astringent story. Rosemary, a girl whose family has seen better days, lives in furnished rooms, in London a few years after a Blitz and a war that I think go completely unmentioned in the book. Can she help her seamstress mother make rent by cleaning other apartments? For that she needs a broom, and she buys one from a witch, and the broom is magic, and it comes with a talking cat.

The problems that Rosemary and the cat Carbonel face are laid out with admirable clarity. Carbonel is under the witch's spell and cannot be free till Rosemary reunites the broom with a cauldron and a hat. Much as Rosemary loves Carbonel, she loves his freedom more, and there's the additional exigence that Carbonel is the rightful King of the Cats, and his realm has sunk into anarchy during his enchantment. Rosemary and her friend John, a genteel boy whose family has also come down in the world, set about gathering the requisite objects and finding the spell that will energize them and liberate their cat.

There's no way a book like this can end badly, but all the same I felt a light, insistent apprehension as I was reading Carbonel. Partly this is because Sleigh does a good job building suspense. All three objects must be assembled and treated with just the right touch of half-established, half-improvised verbiage for the spell to work, and there's the constant worry that the kids will lose one item before they can collect the other two. Carbonel himself, though magical, is mortal, and he can't fly (except on the broomstick), so there's the constant worry that something might happen to him before he can be freed.

Some sense of loss and sadness, of lingering anxiety, pervades even the brightest moments of Carbonel. The children are going to stay human, to lose touch with the magical world, to discard their enchanted objects. They set the plot in motion with the intention of losing Carbonel himself. It's a nice bittersweetness, wistful without turning twee. The title character is a big part of this atmosphere. While he is magically omnicompetent, Carbonel is also just a cat. He likes sleeping, pigging out on dishes of fish, grooming, and ignoring his humans. Sleigh creates a fantasy world that isn't entirely under control, fully explained, or subject to a predestined future.

Though there were at least two sequels. I might read them (but I say that about a lot of series). The usual principle with children's fantasy fiction is that when the first book is fine, the others tend to be weak. Getting into the magical world is the fun part; telling stories in it after the reader learns its dimensions is trickier. If I do read more Carbonel books, I will let you know how it went.

Sleigh, Barbara. Carbonel: The king of the cats. 1955. New York: New York Review Books, n.d.