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The Book of Love coverWhat did we want from a Kelly Link novel? Speaking purely for myself, the answer was, “I didn’t.” For more than two decades Link has produced world-class short fiction, some of it on the longer side, but all of it taking perfect advantage of the form—its fluidity, its permission to linger on well-chosen images, its ability to do without strict explanations. Asking her to produce a novel felt like entering a photographer’s gallery exhibition and flapping one’s hand, saying, “Yes, yes, it’s all very pretty, but when are you going to make your first feature film?” How dull! How philistinic! How ungrateful!

I’ll admit this may read as bias against The Book of Love, but Link herself has talked about the project in tones of inevitability. Speaking with The Cut, she admits that “even if one is a short-story writer at heart, this is a world of novels … any time that you are talking with somebody, they will say, ‘Well, have you ever thought about writing a novel?’” The book’s acknowledgements reinforce this, with Link thanking Holly Black, “who suggested that I write a novel on purpose, rather than by accident,” and promising that “the next one will be shorter.” The die is cast: Kelly Link has written a novel, and a long one at that, a hefty 625 pages. Now that we actually have a Kelly Link novel, what are we to make of it?

The story begins with bereavement. Eleven months ago, Susannah’s sister, Laura, vanished from their small home town of Lovesend, Massachusetts, along with her friends Daniel and Mo. Susannah is left “alone in the dark” of a moonlit night, but across town, things are getting even stranger. There is a rush of darkly psychedelic imagery and Laura, Daniel, and Mo find themselves back from the dead and deposited in their high school music classroom, along with a mysterious fourth being they name Bowie for his two differently coloured eyes. He’s not the only enigma, however. The four have been reanimated by Mr. Anabin, the kids’ former music teacher and apparently a powerful magician. They are pursued by a villainous being named Bogomil, in whose nether-realm they have spent the last eleven months. Bogomil and Anabin seem at odds, yet operate in a curious balance, and the revived adolescents are given an ultimatum:

2 RETURN

2 REMAIN

The race is on to find out how they died and determine which of them will remain in the land of the living. This being a Kelly Link story, that initial status quo is soon complicated significantly. The four are tasked with learning magic and accomplishing various strange feats, and the plot is further upended by the arrival of Malo Mogge, a tyrannical moon goddess, and her immortal servant, Thomas. It’s an involved plot full of crisscrossing threads that can be difficult to keep straight, but some degree of confusion is perhaps appropriate for a story about teenagers, especially teenagers with problems as epic as these.

The novel is primarily set in December 2014, and speaking as someone who actually was a teenager back then, Link does a good job capturing the geeky zeitgeist of the time. Characters sing Taylor Swift’s “This Love” at karaoke, reference Doctor Who and Harry Potter, and sit around in cafes writing “Korrasami AU fan fiction.” This attention to period detail (anachronistic TikTok reference aside) gives a sense of temporal place to the proceedings, undercutting some of the story’s portentousness and adding texture to the lives of its vividly characterised adolescent heroes.

Indeed, characterisation is perhaps The Book of Love’s greatest strength, with all the main players having intuitively graspable personalities that help ground the reader throughout the strange convolutions of the plot. Laura and Susannah are a chalk-and-cheese pairing who are constantly at odds and yet closely intertwined. At one point Laura reflects, “Oh, how reassuring it was to see Susannah’s face and feel vaguely annoyed for no good reason at all.” Daniel is a self-effacing people-pleaser whose thoughts, we are told, are “mostly not very complicated,” devoted to his family at the expense of his own interests or even self-preservation. (One of the first things he does upon returning home from the dead is launch into a series of chores).

Mo, meanwhile, is a musician too shy to share any of his compositions. He feels isolated as one of the few Black kids in Lovesend, even before he learns that the grandmother who raised him passed away while he was trapped in Bogomil’s realm. Mo’s devotion to his craft is clearly an inheritance from his grandmother, Maryanne, a prolific romance novelist who wrote under the pen name Caitlynn Hightower, and whose advice echoes throughout the book. At one point Mo reminisces about her with her former secretary before privately remembering that “[h]is grandmother had said something else to him, too. She’d said lucky people found the work they were meant to do. Unlucky people found love.”

Many of the book’s most affecting scenes emerge out of flashbacks like this. Laura, for example, is a big fan of Caitlynn Hightower’s books, particularly her Lavender Glass series of historical romances. In one passage, she experiences a tender moment of self-discovery through them:

There is a moment in the fifth Lavender Glass book, Marry a Grave at Midnight, when her dear friend Yvette confesses that she has always loved her. There is even a kiss. Lavender Glass feels a kind of strange thrill in the softness of her friend’s lips. She can feel Yvette’s breasts pressing against her own. Of course, nothing comes of it and Yvette dies after drinking from a poisoned glass of wine meant for Lavender Glass. But when Laura read that scene, she realized something about herself. She wanted to kiss girls, too. Of course, fiction and television had made it clear to her that girls who loved girls usually came to tragic ends. If you asked her, she would have said this has had no bearing on her own life. The reason she’s never kissed a girl is because she has always been waiting for the right moment and the right moment has never yet presented itself.

This careful swirling of corny genre tropes amid a sense of youthful longing, both heartfelt and matter-of-fact, is only one example of Link’s gorgeous prose. For another, take our protagonists’ escape from the nightmarish realm of Bogomil:

They had been imprisoned. Then there had been a seeping warmth, a kind of shiver as if someone you’d once known how to be had walked past a door, and though that door was closed, they had pressed against it until there was the very thinnest seam—Such small stitches, whose hand had made them? Who had hung the hinges on this door?—but they were very thin now, too, and slipped through that loose stitch, one by one by one. And one more. Who?

This sense of queasy ambiguity, of human language struggling to capture a fundamentally inhuman experience, adds a real intensity to this resurrection scene. (It would be enough to hook me even if I weren’t already somewhat invested in magic doors). Individual sentences also frequently dazzle, such as the description of a magical artifact feeling “like the deepest note ringing from a bell the size of a room you’d never manage to walk out of again, not in a lifetime.” Link’s prose, here as in her short stories, is rarely less than delightful, pulling the reader through all of the novel’s structural shortcomings.

But about those shortcomings. Several reviews have commented on The Book of Love’s length; even when this isn’t a complaint, there’s a sense of the novel’s 625 pages as something to be apologised for. The book is described with language like “this long but engrossing novel” or admissions that it is “long, but never boring.” And while boring is certainly not the word for the book’s infelicities, awkward just might be. The novel is constantly doubling back on itself, as one chapter will see a character experiencing an event, and the next will follow a different character from a few hours beforehand, feeding into the same event. This inelegance is not helped by a larger problem, which is that the story is weakest when it slows down and starts to explain itself.

Anabin and Bogomil are ultimately revealed to be in thrall to Malo Mogge, who threatens to tear Lovesend apart in search of a magical key lost in an occult ritual centuries ago. This development not only cheapens Anabin and Bogomil, it reduces the entire plot to an overly elaborate fetch quest, one which doesn’t satisfyingly mesh with the lovely, detailed characterisation of the teenage leads. Ron Charles at The Washington Post calls the novel’s plot “both overly complicated and essentially silly,” an assessment the characters appear to agree with. Towards the end Susannah calls Malo Mogge “[a] murderous bitch … who seems to have misplaced her keys for five hundred years.” It’s a funny line, but it can’t disguise the fact that, once Malo Mogge is defeated, the novel’s climax devolves into a painfully neat accounting of which characters will take up which places in the new cosmic hierarchy. (Though a bit of light cannibalism does sweeten the deal somewhat).

Susannah’s quip also feels pertinent because it is a quip, one of several the main characters make throughout the book. I suspect these quips are partly why so many reviews have compared The Book of Love to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Setting aside the obviousness of Buffy as a byword for quippy teens and the supernatural in fiction, I think it’s telling that the comparison being reached for is televisual rather than literary. In talking with friends about Link’s move into novels, I’ve found myself referencing Michael Jordan’s stint as a baseball player and Taylor Swift’s transition from pop music into folk. This is not to deny anyone’s artistic freedom; novels, baseball, and folk music are all perfectly noble pursuits, and one is of course entitled to engage with any of them. But they are not fundamentally what I want from these artists, nor do they seem particularly adept at them. These Buffy references feel like an oblique expression of disappointment in a new genre not quite fitting a beloved artist.

When The Book of Love shines (and it often does), it is in stretches of a few pages at a time. The kaleidoscopic chapter about Maryanne’s life, encapsulating her joyful fantasies, her frustrations with a racist publishing industry, and her utter devotion to her grandson; the casual cruelty of Malo Mogge transforming a woman into a tiger; the frank yet tender sketch of Daniel and Susannah’s on-again, off-again relationship; the novel’s dense, sweeping, and utterly persuasive final chapter, with its argument for “[e]very ending happy when the time must come at last for endings.” These are the parts that will linger after the convoluted plot is forgotten; the things that deserve to be remembered.

It’s hard to call a novel full of engaging characters, beautiful prose, and weird transformative imagery a failure. And The Book of Love is not a failure. But it’s not a triumph either, and compared to the sublime brilliance of Link’s short fiction, it’s hard to get excited about the book’s comparatively modest success. Despite its many charms, for me, this is less a book of love and more a book of like.

[Editor’s Note: Publication of this poem was made possible by a gift from Ed Morland during our annual Kickstarter.]



William Shaw is a writer from Sheffield, currently living in the USA. His writing has appeared in Space and Time, Daily Science Fiction, and Doctor Who Magazine. You can find his blog at williamshawwriter.wordpress.com and his Twitter @Will_S_7.
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