Wednesday, October 17, 2007

REVIEW: Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Published: 2006
Click on the cover to buy from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller.

A short story about a village contained in a purse. A house where possessions and body parts become haunted. Intermarriage among the living and the dead. A supernatural soap opera within a soap opera. Magic for Beginners isn't a typical read for me.

I first heard of Kelly Link at this year's American Library Association conference, at a session on emerging young writers. The speaker likened her work to that of Neil Gaiman, a fantasy writer I don't know well. I try to follow up on conferences by reading because I think it's important for me professionally and because I love to learn. So when I got home I picked up a copy of Magic for Beginners, not quite knowing what to expect.

Magic for Beginners is Link's second volume of short stories. I liked it. I didn't love it, but I liked it. The stories are creative, original and unusual. They are set mostly in the here-and-now, in recognizable cities and suburbs and don't require a lot of exposition to get started. One story is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, another in a convenience store, and another in a nameless, generic suburb. When they're not set in the real world, Link sketches the setting economically, using familiar tropes (like witches) to get the reader started. Into every setting Link's premises swirl together elements of reality and fantasy so seamlessly the reader can almost take it for granted. Well of course there is an opening to the zombie world right outside that store, you think as you read "The Hortlak"; obviously. Her slightly blase tone makes it easy to be seduced.

But be careful, because beneath that matter-of-fact surface there's something more going on. Metaphor, for example. Is the story about the lost handbag containing Grandma's village really a story about searching for lost heritage? And what about that not-quite-neutral third-person narrator who pops up again and again? In the story "The Great Divorce," a living man is divorcing his dead wife. Near the end of the story (and I'm not giving anything away here), the narrator says, "Even as I've been telling you this story, I haven't described things exactly as they went on. I haven't been honest about the dead people in this story, about how the dead carry on." What? The narrator's abrupt intrusion shocked me out of my readerly complacency. On one hand, this admission of bias raises the specter of racism in how the dead are portrayed; on the other hand, the narrator is asking the reader a deeper question about the very purpose of writing, or of reading. Why tell this story this way if it's a lie? Why read it? Of course it's fiction so there is no "truth" anyway, so how does it undermine the very endeavor of reading and writing when a narrator in a fictional story admits that he/she's lying? Or does it?

I enjoyed the opportunity to toy with some larger questions but overall I have admit that Link's laid back tone in some of the stories, like "Stone Animals," about the haunted house, just didn't hold my attention. I wasn't always sure where they were going, or where they ended up. When Link's fine weave of tones and realities worked for me, in stories like "Catskin," "The Faery Handbag" and the title story, the book was something close to magic.

P.S. If you like this style of mixing realism with elements of the fantastical, you might check out some of A.S. Byatt's short stories, particularly those in Elementals and Little Black Book of Stories. Enjoy!