Book Review – Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Magic Realism / Short Stories
Publication Date: September 5th, 2006
Publisher: Mariner Books

I have a strange split-dimensional relationship with magic realism. Sometimes we are the best of friends, sometimes it worms under my skin in an annoying way. Many books covet its charm but are not brave enough to attempt it, but that can never be said for Kelly Link, who might as well have invented it. Sewn it together into a beautiful monster out of abandoned skin shed from horror and fantasy and whatever lurks in the mind.

Link’s stories can be frustrating. They are alchemical clockwork, unexpected treasures made out of completely strange ideas. But it’s not a simple task to make such a thing understandable, and sometimes it’s not. A lot of Magic for Beginners has no clear-cut linearity. The endings are often left up for interpretation, and take place in a world that runs on the logic of lucid dreaming.

Boy, but is it a quilt of fascinating tales – mismatched, maybe, but in their entirely working smoothly together. “The Cannon” is the tattered point. As much as I like experimental writing, I usually skip that one on re-reads.
The jewels of the collection are the ones that begin with the mundane. “The Hortlak”, easily the crown story, begins with two men working in a convenience store. Except it happens to be a convenience store on the threshold of a grand chasm, where the dead crawl out when it’s dark. Some nights the dead offer things to the two clerks, but they always leave the store with nothing and nobody can figure out what they want.
“The Hortlak” is a really haunting piece about the aimlessness people carry in their lives like it’s a physical burden, forever confused about what we really want.

Some other favourites were “Some Zombie Contingency Plans”, the unexpectedly Lovecraftian “Stone Animals”, and “Lull”, which has echoes of my own stories.
I first read Magic for Beginners about seven years ago, and it struck a chord in me. I hadn’t really experienced books with this surreal quality I’d been seeking for so long. Link is a difficult standard to try to live up to, but I wanted to write something that gives off the same ghostly unease.

These stories are never obvious or blatant, they are like a painting – they stand discreetly and wait for you to make your own decision about them, and then you notice the scenes that lurk in their backgrounds that have something sinister in them.
To properly enjoy Magic, you have to let your sense of logic free and appeal to your imagination to listen, and it will create its own meaning that’s more than can be said in words.

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