The Short Version: A handbag that carries a whole village, a house haunted / plagued by rabbits, a television show that appears randomly on random channels, and zombies are just a few of the magical and magically strange things to populate Kelly Link’s nine-story collection.
The Review: It took me nearly a month to read this whole collection, even though it’s only nine stories long. It almost required that I take at least a day or more (it was often more) between stories – I couldn’t just read one and then come back a few hours later, despite the fact that I desperately wanted to. Link is such a magical author that it was easy to fall into her spell – but you knew, like a sort of strange block in your brain, that you had to space these tales out. You had to let them live for a little while before you could return to the well.
And, most impressively, that’s what nearly all of these tales do: they live. There is an electric energy that runs through them, something that I think can only really be described as magic. See, I’ve never read stories quite like these ones. I’ve read plenty of short stories – plenty of amazing short stories. Gaiman, King, van den Berg, Gray… we live in, as Chuck Palahniuk (a skilled short story writer himself) said, a new golden age of short stories. But I’ve never read anything quite like these. Or at least most of these.
Let’s get out of the way the two stories that I didn’t love first: “The Cannon” and “The Great Divorce”. The former is a style exercise, written as question and answer – intriguing in that way that all exercises are intriguing, but ultimately forgettable – and the latter is just nothing tremendously exciting when compared to the rest of the collection.
Which brings us to a problem, of sorts: comparing stories to one another when those stories don’t actually have a reason to be compared other than that they’re both included in a collection. Because on the one hand, I want to give this collection the absolute highest marks possible – some of these stories are, without doubt, the best stories (in any length or shape or form) I’ve ever encountered. The title story and “Stone Animals” both are just absolutely tremendous, while “The Hortlak” and “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” are heartbreaking in their humanity in the face of surreality. “The Faery Handbag” and “Catskin” are nothing less than modern fairytales, in the truest sense of the term and in a way that I didn’t really think we would see again: they’re the sorts of tales that grandparents told their grandchildren as wee ones, only created brand new and put down here for adults.
I mentioned earlier that these stories were for adults – and while I think a young person could certainly read them and enjoy them and all of that, I do think that these are tales for adults in the way that Neil Gaiman’s short stories tend to feel more accessible to all ages. There is a sense of behind-the-curtain mystery here, the thing that (as a child) you might’ve looked to catch glimpses of in your own parents or those around you but you never quite thought you could understand – and Link’s stories stand on the other side of that curtain, looking back, saying “even when you’re here, you won’t quite understand.” That sort of grown-up magic is almost inexplicable and Link’s ability to find it is a sort of alchemy that is very rare indeed.
I want to keep talking real quick about “Stone Animals” and then the title story. So the former has shades of Danielewski’s House of Leaves (a strange, seemingly haunted ordinary house) but turns the story in a completely different way from that horrifying novel – and delivers such a gobsmacking twist at the end that I was shouting “WHAT” several times in a row. I had an immense grin on my face because it was a strange, hilarious, and completely unexpected ending – one that genuinely surprised me. As Palahniuk (again) said, when you’re a writer, it takes more for a story to genuinely surprise you. And this did in a way that reminded me of the earliest things I was reading, when I was learning about the basic magic inherent in the written word.
As for “Magic for Beginners”, what can I say other than that I wish it was a whole novel. I wish it was a series. I wish it was real. The plot involves a television show called “The Library” – and while there are some meta-levels to the concept of the show and what we’re actually reading (the story is in fact, as the opening lines seem to state, an episode itself), I’ll refer to “The Library” as the show that the characters watch: this strange show set inside a gigantic… well, library, known as the Free People’s World-Tree Library. There is magic, there are books, there are whole ecosystems, there’s a statue of George Washington and a character called Fox who is played by a different actor in each episode. There are episodes in other languages, episodes where the whole cast is invisible, and so on. It’s like if you took the format-busting stuff Joss Whedon was doing with Buffy and raised it to the power of 5. And I want, so badly, for it to be a real show. I even want the strange airtime thing to be real: it airs randomly, on random channels, without much in the way of warning. There is, of course, a devoted fandom who track these things and help each other out – and I could get into that, in a heartbeat. It’s the next step, the punchdrunkian step, beyond binge-watching and full-season single-date releases.
But even as the details of the world immediately leapt out and entranced me, it was Link’s ability to bring forth wholly real characters that was equally of-note. The kids in this story and their complex attempts at understanding reminded me of my own adolescence – and of how we create, in our minds and (if we’re lucky) for others, a narrative of what we wish our lives had been during our adolescence.
But I now must return to my problem: how to accurately rate this collection. Because, on the other hand of all the things I’ve been saying, the collection is only a slipcase for these individual stories. They are each magical (or, well, most of them are)… but is the whole as magical as its individual parts? On the one hand, the fact that there are two less-than-stellar stories (by the way, should say: those stories are still very good. Like, VERY very good.) should disqualify the collection from being in the rarefied 6-out-of-5 realm. But the stories that I loved in this collection, I loved more than so many things I’ve read.
It’s a complicated question and I’ve been grappling with it for weeks. It feels somewhat like splitting hairs, to differentiate between the rating of the book and the rating of the individual stories… but these are the constructs we set up for ourselves and the whole point is that we follow them or, should it be necessary, we tear them down and attempt to reconstruct them. I don’t think this is the latter. I feel pretty confident in giving this a Rating: 5+ out of 5. And stating, quite simply, that the collection itself, the object that I held and read from, wasn’t a perfect collection. But I also need to continue to add the caveat that these stories are, individually, often worthy of that highest of ratings and feelings. Kelly Link surprised me at a time when I was thinking that few authors could really pull that off anymore. She is a magician, then, of the highest quality. And it’s a delight to experience magic, no matter your age or jadedness.