The Beginning Of The World In The Middle Of The Night – Jen Campbell
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.
Review: I had a professor who would’ve called this book “masturbatory.” The author obviously enjoyed writing it, but the readers are confused, disturbed, and wondering why they’re looking at it.
I didn’t like that professor, so let’s move swiftly forward and forget I started a book review with a sex reference.
This book was an impulse buy. I saw it on a list of new releases and fell in insta-love with the cover. Then I read the synopsis and thought, Yes, this is a “me” book. Get in my Amazon cart right now.
The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night is a collection of twelve magical realism short stories. “Stories” is probably the wrong word. Maybe “oddities” is better. There are plays, advertisements, letters, all sorts of bizarre little things. Each oddity is different, but they focus on similar themes. The characters are all storytellers, and many of them have complicated relationships with their bodies. (Or other characters’ bodies. Or body parts.) The characters buy hearts online, keep bits of themselves in jam jars, and have mermaid-like appendages. You need a high tolerance for the weird and whimsical if you want to read this collection.
I love bits of this book, but I can’t say I completely love any of the stories. The language is poetic, and there is some stunning imagery. The author has very creative ideas. I like how the real is blended with the fantastical. I just don’t think this book is for me. It kind of feels pretentious? Or maybe I’m not smart enough for it? Most of the stories left me feeling confused. They seem disjointed and unfinished, like all the disparate ideas didn’t come together in the end. I wasn’t always sure what I was supposed to get out of reading them.
This collection has some amazing reviews on Goodreads, which leads me to believe that I’m just too stupid for it. Other people obviously loved it.
Here are the stories that have stuck in my mind:
In “Animals,” a dude buys a swan heart online and uses it to force a woman to love him. I like the fairytale vibes in this story. It reminds me of a modernized Brothers Grimm tale. It’s also a unique look at obsession and consent.
“In the Dark” is about a lost pilot who walks into a woman’s home and stays a while. This story is bizarre, but it’s not so abstract that I got confused.
My favorite is “Little Deaths.” Mostly because I love the imagery. The story is set in a world where ghosts are real, and kids catch them in jam jars. I wish this story was longer.
“Pebbles” is about love and hate, peace and war. It’s about a romance, but not a particularly happy one. I think this is one of the most cohesive stories in the collection. The writing style didn’t feel as confusingly jarring as the others.
“Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel” reminds me of something Karen Russell would write. Characters go to a hotel to sleep in coffins and experience death. It’s creepy and a bit funny. I could see this story being expanded into a novel.
TL;DR: This book is smarter than me.