Fantastically weird modern fairy tales.
Spirits in jam jars, mini-apocalypses, animal hearts and side shows. A girl runs a coffin hotel on a remote island. A boy is worried his sister has two souls. A couple are rewriting the history of the world. And mermaids are on display at the local aquarium...
I like fairy tales, especially modern ones with a nod to myth and legend. I do NOT like collections of short stories. Never had, never will do. Not even my faves like Neil Gaiman. I find it hard to get into a story only for it to end and start again with a brand new story and no chance of redemption or closure. Occasionally, however, you’ll find a gem(s) amongst the collections that re-installs your faith.
In Jen Campbell’s The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night, happily there were several standouts.There are twelve short stories - most solid, a few that missed the mark (as would be expected), but I will concentrate on the ones that were particularly effective.
The first story ‘Animals’ was my favourite and a strong start to the collection. This story is set in a world where animal hearts are transplanted to keep people alive. The recipient takes on the personality traits of the animal it came from. The fox heart made her nocturnal, the bear heart made her possessive and the wolf heart gave her rage. A Husband searches for a suitable heart for his wife (or is it for him?). This tale is suitably dark, surreal and bizarre. Well written, thought provoking and disturbing and thoroughly enjoyable, it left me wanting more.
I loved the short story ‘The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night’ - a bizarre conversation that we’ve all had with a friend or partner in the wee small hours of the night. This story is written in a script style, and this works well to convey that sleepy, half listening discussion about what it’s all about. The other stand out for me was Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel. It was a little lighter than the others in the collection but great fun - set in a hotel on a remote island where the family rents out coffins and the experience of death in an attempt to reconnect with their deceased loved ones. I liked that it evoked a strong, almost gothic feel and was impressed that there was such sense of the characters and setting in such a short space of time. I do believe that this story could be expanded and would be enjoyable as a stand alone novel of its own.
On reflection, I enjoyed this collection a lot more than I originally thought. It does suffer from the problem of all short story collections in that you are unable to settle and have to say goodbye, too soon, to a story you’re enjoying. But hey, that’s why some people like short stories. Some of the stories ideas are better than their execution and on occasion the well researched content feels like a list of facts with a story thrown in rather than the other way round. However, I thoroughly enjoyed reading these; I enjoyed the darkness, whimsy and magical realism and also the author’s observations on human nature. Recommended, probably in small chunks, for maximum enjoyment.