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Book of the Week: ‘Magic for Beginners’ by Kelly Link

Since there’s a holiday weekend coming up, this feels like a particularly appropriate time to talk about and celebrate Kelly Link — and more specifically Magic for Beginners, one of the best short story collections to come out in the last decade. Originally published by the smaller press Mariner Books in 2005, the book has just been reissued by Random House in anticipation of Link’s upcoming collection, due out in 2015. Though Magic for Beginners came out a little bit before the recent vogue for short stories, it — like the author herself — already has its devotees. In fact, Link has been praised up and down by big-name authors, counting everybody from Neil Gaiman to Karen Russell, Peter Straub, and Lev Grossman among her fans. And although she earns the sort of high praise that follows writers who’ve earned the insufferable “writer’s writer” tag, she’s also found that rare sweet spot of being both a true literary talent and a storyteller whose imagination seems to know no limits.

It should be a more common combination, but Link is really in a class of her own. Russell, whose imagination also leads her work to strange places, has certain strengths in common with Link; Michael Chabon could be an adequate comparison, too, because of the way both writers’ work will get you thinking about how wonderful it would be to crawl inside their heads for a day (an image that Link could probably turn into a brilliant story). She also bears comparison to some of the greatest authors ever to combine literary and genre fiction: Poe, Jackson, Lovecraft, Bradbury. If you look closely enough, you might find yourself reading characters whose ominously innocent introductions read almost like Flannery O’Connor.

Link lures readers into her shorts stories in a way I don’t think any other writer does. Soap, the protagonist of the story “Some Zombie Contingency Plans,” is a perfect example of Link giving us hints that there’s something a little off with the character, but she’s so great at what she does that she quickly distracts us by wrapping us up in her great storytelling. We know early on that Soap went to jail, that he’s crashing house parties to have something to do; it doesn’t occur to us that much of anything could go wrong. Magic for Beginners‘ opening story, “The Faery Handbag,” begins with the protagonist telling us about thrift stores she used to frequent, hunting for her Grandma Zofia’s faery handbag, which she describes as “huge and black and kind of hairy. Even with your eyes closed, it feels black.” Not so strange, right? Well, it gets a little weirder:

As black as black ever gets, like if you touch it, your hand might get stuck in it, like tar or black quicksand or when you stretch your hand out at night, to turn on a light, but all you feel is darkness.

Good description. But there’s also the little fact that “[f]airies live inside it. I know what that sounds like, but it’s true.”

Is it true, or is it just another one of Link’s weirdos being weird? This is the kind of question you’re bound to explore in every single story presented to you in Magic for Beginners. And it’s what makes Link one of the most fascinating American writers who is currently at the height of her powers. This new paperback version of her older stories gives readers a chance to experience or re-experience the early manifestations of those powers, and prepare for what’s next.

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