Jen Campbell, The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night (2017)
Were you the type at school to finish up an essay right on the night before it was due? For me, it was not always, but definitely I remember those times bad enough. I can’t say I enjoyed this rush of adrenaline, because I tended to freeze and not remember my best ideas.
And yet, here I am, on the very last day of September, with only a few hours to go before October, trying to finish this short story collection in time for the #unreadshelf challenge, that threatens you to get rid of books when unfinished at the end of the month.
Fear not, I won’t get rid of this book, although I might give it away to friends (and buy another copy for myself again). I enjoyed the collection, but it is best enjoyed slowly and not under a deadline. The atmosphere is soft and dark, slightly creepy at times (or more than slightly), or melancholy. Each of the 12 stories have uncanny elements in them, sometimes more obviously than others. I had misunderstood that there would be rewriting of folk tales, but actually Campbell uses popular figures like angels, mermaids, witches, to play with and do something slightly unexpected.
The two stories that stood out for me were the first one, Animals, and Margaret and Mary and the End of the world. Animals is quite dark and gets you from the very start:
These days, you can find anything you need at the click of a button.
That’s why I bought her heart online.
It was delivered this morning along with my groceries, tucked inside a cardboard box, red oozing out the sides. They’d tied a half-hearted bow around the edges, a tag with promises of customer satisfaction and a thirty day warranty.
‘Our hearts are played classical music from the moment they begin to grow. Bred to love. Built to last.’
I was hooked! In this weird world, love and physical hearts are objects that people seek out and use (or misuse). The narrator is very unpleasant, but I couldn’t stop.
In “Margaret and Mary and the End of the world”, the author is inspired by the famous Dante Gabrielle Rossetti’s painting “Ecce Ancilla Domini”, where a frightened, meek Mary receives the news that she is pregnant with Jesus. Campbell manages to weave into this story a lot of images and heavy themes, like abuse, pregnancy and anorexia. Despite the sadness it is quite a memorable story told in bits and pieces.
I’m not very knowledgeable in this style of stories, but they definitely reminded me of Kelly Link. The book might just be the right sort if you look for something uncanny and want to start the Halloween season in the right mood.