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Book Review

Magical tales keep their focus on youth

By Julie Wittes Schlack
Globe Correspondent / January 20, 2009
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Kelly Link's writing defies genre, which is why it's not surprising that the back cover of her new short story collection, "Pretty Monsters," is filled with glowing blurbs that compare her to exotic melds of other writers, including Jorge Luis Borges, Raymond Chandler, and J.K. Rowling. But the fusion that came to my mind as I read these paranormal tales of teenage longing and self-invention was an amalgam of S.E. Hinton and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These stories are fantastic, in both the literal and colloquial sense of the term, and though written for young adults, are every bit as evocative for adult readers.

The book begins with "The Wrong Grave," in which a high school boy named Miles digs up Bethany, his recently deceased girlfriend, to retrieve the poetry he'd written for and impulsively buried with her. But what rises out of her grave is another young woman with seething snake hair who speaks fluent Spanish, smells of cherry ChapStick, and craves beef jerky. With its juxtaposition of creepy ghostliness, adolescent frustration, and beautifully nuanced grief, this opening sets the tone for the rest of the collection.

Teenage protagonists are the one consistent element in stories that otherwise vary in their settings, feel, and historical period. Some, such as "The Constable of Abal," are set in vaguely Eastern European locales and unnamed eras which, judging from the dominant modes of transportation (carts, horses, the occasional train) and the migration of hungry peasants, could be anytime during the 19th century. This lack of temporal orientation works to good effect, however, reminding us that at practically any moment in history, children are growing up amid war and dislocation.

In "Magic for Beginners," the time is today, and the cultural icons populating the story - a Las Vegas phone booth and wedding chapel, blogs, Goths, and Hello Kitty - are relentlessly topical. Set in the near future, "The Surfer," with its allusions to pandemics, soccer, and utopian cults based in Costa Rica, is equally resonant.

But common to every extraordinarily imaginative story in this book is the plight of its heroes - kids trying to find their way in a world created by adults - even often the well-intentioned adults - who have failed them.

In "The Wizards of Perfil," Halas, an unhappy telepath separated by war from her family, finds herself in the service of wizards who are ". . .lazy and useless. They hate to climb stairs and they never listen when you talk. They don't answer questions because their ears are full of beetles and wax and their faces are wrinkled and hideous . . . The wizards of Perfil spend all night scratching their fleabites and sleep all day. I'd rather be a scullery maid than a servant of the invisible, doddering, nearly blind, flea-bitten, mildewy, clammy-fingered, conceited marsh-wizards of Perfil," she rants. Not even wizards - adults who ostensibly have magical powers - can be counted on.

While very disturbing at times, there is little malice in this remarkable book. The ghosts, monsters, and parents are not so much evil as incompetent; not out to do harm so much as incapable of mastering the drives, willfulness, or simple inattention that cause it. But in the process of coping with big forces beyond their control - divorce, war, full moons, and magic - the generally appealing protagonists discover their own power and compassion, and in so doing, create their own stories.

Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.

PRETTY MONSTERS By Kelly Link

Viking, 389 pp., $19.99

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