From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Book Review: Pretty Monsters, Kelly Link

Pretty Monsters is Kelly Link’s first short story collection for young adults. Within, one will find nine charming, unsettling, magical, punch-you-in-the-gut and tweak-your-mind pieces of short fiction. Though the collection is aimed at young adults, the stories are still very much Kelly Link and her dedicated fans will enjoy them as much, if not more, than the target young adult audience.

Pretty Monsters opens with “The Wrong Grave”, in which Miles, a teenage boy, digs up what he believes to be his girlfriend’s grave in an attempt to recover a sheaf of poetry he had placed in her casket so he can submit it to a contest.

Kelly Link is known for her unconventional narrative structures, but several of the stories in Pretty Monsters are more traditional in their plotting and structure. The first of these is “The Wizards of Perfil”, a story about a young boy (Onion) and girl (Halsa) who learn what it’s like to serve a group of legendary wizards.

“Magic for Beginners”, which won the 2005 Nebula Award for best Novella, originally appeared in Kelly Link’s most recent adult short fiction collection of the same name. In “Magic for Beginners”, fifteen-year-old Jeremy Mars appears in an episode of The Library, his favorite television show. The Library is unlike any show we have in our reality –- the cast constantly switches parts, and the television program has no set airing time or station. In this special episode, Jeremy Mars falls in love with one of his best friends, takes a road trip to a Las Vegas wedding chapel his mother inherited, and develops insights into his parent’s relationship and their roles as adults separate from their roles as parents.

The Nebula, Hugo, and Locus award winner “The Faery Handbag” was also included in Magic for Beginners. Teenaged Genevieve spends her time scouring thrift stores for her grandmother Zofia’s handbag. The handbag is huge, black, hairy, over two-hundred-years-old, and houses a world of faeries.

“The Specialist’s Hat”, which won the World Fantasy Award in 1999 and was previously collected in Link’s first short story collection, Stranger Things Happen, is a tale of twins Samantha and Claire and their life at the eerie Eight Chimneys mansion — which has an even stranger history — and the night they spend with a most unusual babysitter.

“Monster” is about a boy’s stay at summer camp, and the cell phone-using monster that has an appetite for teenage boys.

“The Surfer”, features Dorn, a teenaged soccer star who, during a flu epidemic, awaits the second coming of aliens from a bunker in Costa Rica.

“The Constable of Abal”, is about a teenage girl named Ozma, the ghost she keeps in her pocket, and how she discovers her mother’s true nature.

“Pretty Monsters” is structured as a story within a story within a story. Together, two sisters read a story about a group of girls and the night they put two new girls through an ordeal. Interspersed within this narrative is the romance one of the girls is reading about a girl who falls in love with an older boy who always happens to be in the right place at the right time.

But these summaries don’t do Link’s stories justice –- Link fans know her stories deal with subjects on a much deeper level than the main storyline itself, and that continues to be true with Pretty Monsters. These stories explore relationships, particularly parental relationships; they explore the nature of story and narrative. But the best thing about Kelly Link’s works is that not only do they entertain us, they reflect the world around us in a funhouse mirror. No one looks at the world the way Kelly Link does; she starts her readers along a familiar path which then twists and turns unexpectedly when, as if with a snap of the fingers, the story ends and the reader is left to complete the events.

Though the book contains Link’s usual strange sorts of stories, she also ventures into the more traditionally structured and plotted stories as well, as previously mentioned; she does this with great success. It is a pleasure to watch Link evolve as a writer.

The book also contains lovely illustrations by Shaun Tan. Each story begins with a wonderful drawing depicting a scene from the book and aptly accompanied by a line from its story.

The collection is perfect for summer reading — curled up in the hammock or on the beach, alone or with your favorite smart teenager.

Marguerite Croft is a freelance writer living in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Her fiction has appeared in places such as Say… and is forthcoming in Lisa Snellings-Clarke’s tiny stories anthology for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. She is the mother of two and is a graduate of the Clarion West class of 2008.


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