I have an assignment for my novel into film class. I have to adapt a short story into a screenplay, and it can’t be one I’ve written. This means I have been reading many, many short stories, and I came across a brilliant collection that warrants talking about*.
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link is undeniably brilliant. It’s one of those books that’s full of compact but well-thought out concepts and worlds, and it is also the kind of book that upon after finishing it, you wish you could read it all again, and also that you’d written it yourself. It’s been recommended to me often enough — Amber Benson told me about it, which was the first thing I’d ever heard about it. Link’s been regarded as the freshest voice in short fiction and in fantasy by many, many writers, and after reading through the entire collection, I can see why. Her voice is unique: at turns funny and frightening and touching. She’s very versatile. She uses first person, third person, and sometimes even switches briefly into second person. She writes about many different characters: teenage boys and girls, married couples, small children, ghosts, zombies, witches, and magicians. She uses modern technology and present-day settings and she does it well. You don’t wonder about their timelessness. They are timeless.
I was grabbed immediately, as any Bostonian would be, by the first page of the first story, “The Faery Handbag,” mostly because it begins with a description of The Garment District, a misnamed “thrift” store in Kendall Square. But I didn’t keep reading because of the familiarity, I kept reading because Kelly Link has the ability to make everything twist into something unexpected and brilliant. She has that rare gift of explaining things precisely the way you know they are but the way you never’d have thought to describe them on your own. And no story is like the next. I bought this book on Thursday. I have already read the entire thing, even though I have a lot of homework and an article to write, plus a social life that sometimes needs tending.
My favourite story in the bunch — although it is hard to choose, and it’s very dependent on mood — is the title story (which is really a novella). “Magic For Beginners” has this brilliant television show in it and I have never wanted anything to be more real. The characters are real. Her characters are always real. In short fiction, it’s hard to care much about a character, but every time she writes one, you cheer for them or empathize with them or despise them with every fiber of your being. She writes characters with quirks; in “Magic for Beginners,” Jeremy’s father is a recreational shoplifter and writes thrillers about (and only about) giant spiders. In “Stone Animals,” Catherine pretends she’s had an affair, and Henry’s boss has a problem with her tear ducts. These are things — tiny details — that real people do or don’t do, but you don’t question their validity; they work and they are brilliant.
And the fantasy — it’s got zombies, sometimes, but not the kind you’d usually see. Vampires are mentioned once and are not involved at all. Werewolves don’t even come close. Ghosts are important. There are aliens. And there are cats and many witches and magic handbags and for the most part, Link mixes magical realism and science fiction and urban fantasy and literary fiction into something wonderfully compelling.
There are many books you buy on a whim that sit on your shelf and after you’ve finished you regret ever buying it, and you think you should’ve stuck to the library version. But Magic for Beginners is that book where, even though Kelly Link’s got a free download of it on her site, I have never been happier to hold the physical collection in my hands.
*This review is a little convoluted. I apologize. I got very excited and I don’t much care if it’s a jumbled block of energetic ravings.