Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
Rating: Highly Recommended

I would have loved Pretty Monsters when I was a teenager. Heck, I loved it now that I’m farther away from my teenage-hood than feels comfortable.

While I’ve read what’s called “high fantasy” with elves and dragons and such trappings, I’ve always preferred the “magical realism” school of fantasy. Stories that depict events that seem normal until, suddenly, they aren’t. Here, you find obsessive teen-age poets, summer camp outcasts, wannabe soccer professionals and more than one surfer. Nary an elf and hardly a sorcerer to be seen.

The magic here, and I will call it magic, is the way she slowly and naturally gives information that changes the way you see what’s happened so far. Several pages into the first story, there’s a line that sums up what goes on in this book.

Anyone might accidentally dig up the wrong grave. It’s a mistake anyone could make.

–From The Wrong Grave

I mean, how could you not love that line?

All of these stories are pieces I wish I’d written. And when I say the collection is uneven, I merely mean that some stories are merely “really really good” while others are amazing. For me, the best were “The Surfer,” “Magic for Beginners,” the title story and the aforementioned “The Wrong Grave.” In all of these, Link pulls off the nearly impossible trick of establishing a believable set of characters and situations, and then veering off in odd but unforced directions. What you think you see or know changes gently, rather than settling for sudden surprise twists.

A warning, though: if you like easy answers and endings that reveal all and tie things up in a bow, this is not for you. In a lesser writer, the endings of some of these stories would be frustrating. You’ve come so far in a story, and to find that what you thought of as the “big question” to be answered will remain a big question can frustrate some readers. But when you reread these stories (and rereading them is part of the fun), you’ll see how the stories change in a second reading. And people with no patience for metafiction, in which the story itself addresses the way in which it is telling the story, will hate this.

Me, I loved going back and looking at the stories. And the stories within stories. And trying to answer the question of whether something happening is fiction within a fiction, or even fiction within fiction within fiction. I don’t remember the last time I felt the need to re-read something immediately, and rediscovering that almost teenage enthusiasm for something new.

If I’ve piqued your interest, you can read some of these stories online at Kelly Link’s website.

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