Trish's Reviews > Magic for Beginners

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
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's review
Dec 05, 2007

liked it
Read in July, 2006

Link garners effusive praise from Jonathan Lethem, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, Peter Straub, Alice Sebold, et al. Sometimes I get it, and sometimes I don't. Some of her stories I enjoy, some of them I don't.

For example, take the two stories in this collection that I had read previously: Catskin and Stone Animals, both of which I read in McSweeney's. I liked Catskin slightly more the second time around, but it still rates a thumbs down. It's the tale of a witch and her three children and her revenge. Strange things happen, and then other strange things happen, and in the end more strange things happen. I think because it's not grounded in any kind of reality that I can recognize, I just couldn't invest in the characters. There's the crazy witch who dies and becomes a cat, and her devoted son, who she dresses in a cat skin, and they kill the witch who poisoned her and they turn his children back into cats, and probably drown them. In short: Many cats are harmed in the course of the story.

Then there's Stone Animals, which I liked very much the first time around and continued to like very much on a second reading. Perhaps because it is grounded in a reality I recognize. A family moves to a house in the country that is reputed to be haunted. The father is always away, still working in the city. The very pregnant mother grows obsessed with painting the rooms of the house, even dreaming of drinking paint. The daughter sleepwalks. The son is afraid of the dark and of his father's beard. Everyone in the house senses things that are wrong, off ... haunted? First small things, like a toothbrush. But then the family cat. And then the daughter believes her brother is haunted. The yard is infested with rabbits. The father dreams that there are skyscrapers on the lawn and that his house continues down, down, down deep into the earth. Things are strange, but not strange enough to force them to take any drastic action. Life just continues, semi-normal but unsettlingly off-kilter.

And my favorite part of the story is something entirely un-supernatural. The parents' marriage has been rocky. The father is a problem-solver, something of a workaholic, always on the job "putting out fires." So his wife decides that she needs to give him a problem to solve. She confesses to an affair that she didn't have; she submits to marriage counseling to work on a problem that doesn't exist. This reinvigorates the marriage for a time, but now the move to the country has destabilized things. Her husband is always at work, long hours, weekends spent in the city. There are neighbors who think he doesn't exist. She's already played her strongest hand; this time, if the relationship is going to be saved, he'll have to be the one to save it.

Those two stories sort of encapsulate my feelings about Link. I like the stories that incorporate elements of the surreal or supernatural into a recognizable reality. The stories that are entirely strange and supernatural just don't appeal to me.
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