Wednesday, March 6, 2024

The Book of Love, by Kelly Link: A Very Long, Very Magical Debut Novel

You can't talk about about Kelly Link's debut novel The Book of Love without mentioning the following:

    • Kelly Link is a beloved short story writer.
    • Her debut novel clocks in at 630 pages.
    • That's weird. But weird is par for the course.

Far be it from me to buck a trend. The Book Of Love is equal parts strange, irreverent, funny, confusing, and in total, very much Linkian. You'll get some David Mitchell vibes here, maybe some Leigh Bardugo, a little Haruki Murakami, but all Kelly Link. It's not magical realism, per se, and it's not fantasy, and it's not science fiction, but it's some weird mash-up of all three. 

Here's the story: Three teenagers, Daniel, Mo, and Laura, wake up in the music classroom of their former high school, and are informed by their weird former music teacher Mr. Anabin that they've been dead for a year, but are now back. Sort of. Not to worry, though: Their families think they've been on a music study abroad program in Ireland. Because Mr. Anabin is magic. And so are the other two "beings" who join them in coming back from the realm where they'd spent the last year: A guy named Bogomil who can turn himself into a wolf and other animals, and another really odd guy named Bowie.

So the three teenagers rejoin their lives and try to figure out what the hell happened. Laura's older sister Susannah, is the other principle character, and she's a little salty she's been left behind for the past year. Daniel and Susannah had been a not-so-discreet couple, but had broken up right before Daniel (and the other two) died -- was this heartbreak part of their death? The big mystery of the novel is just exactly what happened the night all three died. 

From this reasonably simple premise, the "rules" for the world of this novel grow ever more complex. There are alternate realms, a magical missing key that opens doors between realms, a goddess named Malo Mogge, and hundreds-year-old feuds being played out as the three teenagers try to figure out whether they're going to die again soon. It's a lot, and as it gets more complicated, it gets a little tougher to understand and remember everything. I had fun imagining the storyboarding for this novel -- like Link talking to her writer friends, trying to puzzle out a story problem, and them going, "Well, you could say the key is also a coin or a cup, and maybe Mo's grandmother's romance novel characters can come to life...or you know, whatever." Every time Link seemingly solves a story problem, though, the solution has ripple effects for the rest of rules of the novel, and so thing just get increasingly complex. 

Another thing that's really interesting about this novel is its pacing, how Link navigates time. The whole story takes place over just four days. The first 100 pages, in fact, are just a few hours. This takes some skill to do effectively, and Link does. 

Any time a writer writes a 630-page book, especially one previously known for short stories, complaints about the book being too long are inevitable. While I really enjoyed this, my main criticism isn't that it's too long in principle, it's that it got too long because the rules of the world became so detailed and confusing. There are pages and pages of characters just sitting around talking about how this world works. Simplifying would've, reduced the page count.

But simplifying may also have detracted from imaginativeness of the story. It's a fine line, which Link toes throughout. Even though I was confused a lot, it was truly fun to "watch" Link puzzle out story problems she'd set for herself with such a detailed world. 

Also, I loved the characters -- Daniel is kind of just a bone-headed bro, Mo's a sassy queer fellow who doesn't suffer fools, and Laura is the super cool, disaffected teen belonging more in the 1990s than in Gen Z. And then Susannah. Susannah, to me, really becomes the star of the show, even though she isn't one of the three characters who died. She's easily the most interesting character, and changes the most over the course of the novel. She has layers. She contains multitudes.

So yeah, 630 pages of Kelly Link is a vastly different reading experience than a 20-page Kelly Link short story. Because of course it is. Is it worth the effort? One hundred percent. It's as imaginative and inventive a novel as you'll find, and it's just a lot of fun to read.