And Then I Read: MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS by Kelly Link


© Kelly Link, illustration © Shelley Jackson.

A few years ago I read a short story by Kelly Link called “The Faery Handbag.” Grandmother Zofia seems like an old-world character full of crazy stories to her granddaughter, and she has this odd handbag that she never parts with. Gradually we find out that inside is an entire village of people that went into the bag’s magic opening to escape from war, centuries ago. Zofia took on the job of keeping the handbag safe, but what will happen when she dies? A good read, it was creative, different and fun, and I thought I’d like to get more by her, so when I saw this collection recently, I bought it. It’s the first story in the book and I still like it a lot. The rest of the stories not as much, though the title story is almost as good. Link walks a boundary between mundane “New Yorker” prose and surrealist fantasy, much of it dark. She writes well, has an ear for dialogue and dry wit, but many of her stories have one major flaw: they don’t really end. They have a good set-up, go on for a while in a direction that seems to be heading toward a resolution, but before they get there, they stop.

This is even true of “The Faery Handbag,” though I was so taken with other elements I didn’t notice the first time through. I found it a little frustrating as a reader because at times the end seemed within reach, I could see what it would probably be, but I was left unsatisfied. It seems to be part of Link’s style, she even comments on it and almost makes fun of her own work in the final story, “Lull,” where there are stories within stories, intertwined, but no resolution. “This probably isn’t a true story,” one of the characters says, “I probably won’t get all the way to the end, and I’m not going to start at the beginning, either. There isn’t enough time.”

I can see where one story like this might stand out of the crowd in a magazine or anthology, and it does get one thinking about what might happen next, but a whole book of them is kind of tiresome. I did like some of the ideas, many of the characters, and much of the dialogue, but—call me old fashioned—I prefer some kind of resolution at the end of a story. Therefore, I can only mildly recommend this book.

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