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BOOK REVIEW: The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night by Jen Campbell

BOOK REVIEW: The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night by Jen Campbell

Two Roads
November 2017
Hardcover, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Short Stories / Myths and Legends / Speculative

8/10

‘These days, you can find anything you need at the click of a button.
That’s why I bought her heart online.’

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.

The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night is a collection of twelve haunting stories; modern fairy tales brimming with magic, outsiders and lost souls.

 

Jen Campbell has long been publicly known as something of a kindred spirit for booksellers and lovers of good story, and with her latest offering she does not disappoint.

In the twelve stories in this collection, Campbell offers up twelve worlds that are so very different from each other, but with common themes of fairytale inspiration, disability or deformity, love, not fitting in, and societal battles over personal rights.

Of particular note in this collection (for this reader):

  • Plum Pie, Zombie Green, Yellow Bee, Purple Monster – In which a group of adolescents who are part human, part plant, go to the summer camp where they are examined and tested each year. They wonder at the absence of one of their friends and think of ways to find her or get in touch.

    A Russian man, suspected of having cancer, was found to have a small fir tree growing inside his left lung. When they took it out, he took it home.

    These are our people.
    Once, in Spain, a lily was found growing from the heart of a boy who couldn’t read.
    We have always tumbled out of newspapers and myth.
    Hyacinths flowered from the blood of Apollo.
    Carnations bloomed from the tears of Mary.
    Snowdrops are said to be the hands of the dead.

    How strange they think we are.

  • Margaret and Mary and the End of the World – A story with so much many elements… about eating disorders, teen pregnancy, and pedophilia, interspersed with fairytales, other stories, and our narrator’s speculation.

    ‘So, I see the Reverend every Tuesday now,’ I told Flora.
    ‘What’s he going to do?’ she asked.
    ‘He days he’s going to unpeel me like a fruit to get to the core of all my problems,’ I said. ‘Don’t you think that’s funny?’
    ‘I guess.’
    ‘I mean, it’s like he’s reaching into my soul… or something.’
    ‘Right.’ She continued to braid my hair in silence.
    Flora and I had a mutual understanding.
    We didn’t speak of the unspeakable things.

  • The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night – Told entirely in dialogue, a couple talking in the middle theorise about potential beginnings, including the way they came together. The relationship here is so well realised and evident in the dialogue alone, and it’s hard not to fall for these two.

    EVELYN: Excellent. So. In the beginning . . . there was nothing.
    JULIAN: Nothing?
    EVELYN: Nothing at all. Nothing apart from the darkness and the stars.
    JULIAN: Stars aren’t nothing.
    EVELYN: OK, OK, there were no stars. I’ll put them out with a cosmic fire extinguisher – nothing exists.
    JULIAN: You don’t have a cosmic fire extinguisher – nothing exists.
    EVELYN: You are ruining this story.
    [JULIAN laughs]

  • Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel – This is probably the most easily predicted story in the collection, but still with its share of off-beat and quirky. It just hits all the right notes in all the right places and was interesting and nicely satisfying.

    We started hanging dolls around the island just over a year ago, after Aunt Libby found Isla de las Muñecas online. A floating garden, surrounded by canals, just south of Mexico City, covered with thousands and thousands of dolls. They hang from trees and washing lines, fences and signposts. Decapitated heads impaled on sticks, their stuffing tumbling to the ground.

  • Human Satellites – Short and snappy, this one isn’t so much a story as a musing on the events surrounding the discovery of a planet “composed of soundbites from across the universe”, and the resulting desire for understanding of said planet and the inevitable conflict and fearmongering. I’d like to read a bit more about this in longer form.

    To the north-east of our galaxy, there’s a planet called The Hours.
    Time migrates there from other superclusters; it’s where atoms flee to retire.
    The Hours is composed of soundbites from across the universe. Snippets of time and space pulled in by some foreign gravity that lines them up like jigsawa.
    Like moving conveyor belts.
    Like films.
    When astronauts fly past it, their very atoms stir.

  • Little Deaths – A really well-painted picture of a world where little “ghosts” come from people, escaping from their lungs, and where certain scientists are trying to “cure” people of the ghosts which would theoretically make them immortal. This one was far too short, and I would like the novel of this, please!

    Mum says we have to have a stall for show, but we only sell to jar-breakers. Not to priest-doctors or witches or anyone else. Though once I gave a ghost to a very old man who said he needed company. I told him to open the jar when he got home, introduce himself calmly and see if the ghost wanted to stay.
    I think about him sometimes. I wonder how he’s getting on.

But even in the stories not highlighted here, the writing is fantastic throughout, and there are memorable moments to be found. As is the way with short story collections, there are quite a few endings that leave the reader wanting more, wondering how it all finished up after the writing stopped, but the crafting of them is just plain gorgeous. 

A struggle I often have with short story collections is the ease with which the book can be put down at the completion of one story and, lacking a carry over to the next chapter, left there on the shelf with any kind of urgency, but that was not a battle I had with this collection in particular. Each story is so interesting and well-done that the reader just needs to devour more awesome prose by this talented, heartfelt writer.

 

BOOK REVIEW: The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night by Jen Campbell

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