Taking up long-form fiction: Acclaimed short-story writer Kelly Link is set to debut her first novel
Published: 02-09-2024 12:33 PM
Modified: 02-12-2024 8:19 AM
Kelly Link has piled up quite a few accolades and honors over the years: a MacArthur “genius grant,” a Pulitzer Prize nomination, several awards for fantasy fiction — a Hugo, a World Fantasy, and three Nebulas — and the kind of praise writers dream of. (And some pretty good book sales, too.)
As the The New Yorker puts it, “To read Link is to place oneself in the hands of an expert illusionist, entering a world where nothing is ever quite what it seems.”
But until now, the Northampton author has won all this recognition for her short story collections. So the literary world has been buzzing as Link gets set to debut her first novel, “The Book of Love.”
In making a transition to longer fiction, Link has not skimped. “The Book of Love,” by Random House, weighs in at over 600 pages, unveiling a deep, intricate story with multiple characters, varied magic, teenage snark, a small seaside town where the ordinary becomes extraordinary — and “different kinds of love,” as Link puts it, from romantic to familial to platonic to doomed.
As Link said in a YouTube video she posted last fall, her novel is “my love letter to all the kinds of narrative that have given me immense pleasure over the years: romance novels, Gothic novels, young adult fantasy, CW shows like ‘Vampire Diaries,’ and other melodramas of all shapes and sizes.”
The story begins on a bleak note. Susannah, a teenage girl in the town of Lovesend, Massachusetts, mourns the loss of her younger sister, Laura, who disappeared a year ago along with two other teens from town.
Susannah, 10 months older than Laura, had a love-hate relationship with her sister, who was the “good one,” the accomplished one — Laura was a talented guitarist and singer — in a home headed by their single mother, Ruth, an overworked maternity ward nurse, while Susannah was “the f**kup, the one who didn’t go to college.”
Now, though, she must fill in for Laura as the good kid while still dealing with her own unsatisfying life — and she badly misses her sister.
It turns out that Laura and two of her classmates, Daniel and Mo, have been, well, dead for a year — cause unknown. But they’re reanimated from the netherworld by, of all people, their high school music teacher, Mr. Anabin, who brings them back to life in his classroom.
Mr. Anabin, a nondescript middle-aged guy who wears “blue jeans and T-shirts with affirmational messages on them,” is not your typical teacher. He’s several hundred years old, actually, and a product of the netherworld himself; he tells the teens he’s restored them to life to figure out how they died, and to complete a couple of other tasks for him.
Alongside them is a fourth person, an odd-looking “teen” named Bowie who looks like he’s been put together with spare parts. Another supernatural creature, Bogomil, who can change on a dime from human to animal form, suddenly appears in the classroom to scratch a message on the blackboard: “2 Return, 2 Remain,” suggesting a competition between the teens to see who gets to remain alive.
Sound strange? Hey, we’re just getting started. Laura, Daniel and Mo have been given magical powers — though they must learn how to use them — to complete the tasks set to them by Mr. Anabin. He’s also created a fiction that will cover their absence from their families: that they’ve been in Ireland on a music scholarship program.
Soon Laura is back home bickering with Susannah, the likable Daniel is tending to the younger siblings in his family, and Mo, one of a small number of Black kids in town, is headed home for what he hopes is a reunion with the grandmother who mostly raised him, a celebrated romance novelist named Maryanne Gorch.
All this weirdness, though, is presented with Link’s trademark wry humor and ability to shift tones easily. Her teenage characters pick up their old relationships and irreverent conversations readily enough, even as darker forces, drawn by the presence of magic, converge on Lovesend.
“Someone should make a fuss when you come back from the dead,” thinks Laura as she steps into her house, her sister and mother asleep. “Party balloons and confetti for the surprise guest.”
And Mo wonders who else in town might not be who they appear to be. “Anybody else I should know about?” he asks Mr. Anabin. “Mrs. Paulsen in chemistry, is she a Satanist? All those pewter-wolf accessories. The floor-length hemlines. I just think you should tell me if she is.”
In an email, Link said she’d wanted to write a novel for some time and spent about a year just “think[ing] about a story on a larger scale. The basic plot of ‘The Book of Love’ was the first idea I had that seemed sprawling enough to require a whole book.”
“Laura and Mo and Daniel and Susannah were there from the first, and their various relationships with music and each other were helpful when I thought about how I’d like to structure the novel,” she added. “I knew they would all have their own voices — that this would be a polyphonic narrative.”
All told, it took her about eight years to write her novel, Link said, and the work could be a real trial. She jokes that she’d “sneak off” at times to write a short story, and she accumulated enough new ones to publish her most recent collection, “White Cat, Black Dog,” in 2023. She was also busy during this time with the Easthampton book store, Book Moon, that she and her husband, Gavin Grant, run, as well as their publishing business, Small Beer Press.
That said, “I did enjoy working at a different kind of narrative and seeing what that space gave me room to do that I hadn’t been able to do before,” Link noted.
In particular, “The Book of Love” has let her develop her main characters and their relationships with others. There are some complicated links: Before dying, Laura, Daniel and Susannah had been in a band together, while Susannah and Daniel had had a “friends with benefits” thing going on. Laura had also fantasized about kissing one of Mo’s female friends, Rosamel, and she was a huge fan of Mo’s grandmother’s romance novels.
And when he returns to Lovesend, Mo, who’s gay, is suddenly smitten with another new arrival in town, a moody, handsome boy named Thomas who has some odd mannerisms and unusual abilities.
Indeed, the teen characters spend a fair amount of time having or thinking about sex, or talking about the weirdness of adults. Daniel, Laura, and Mo also have to figure out the mystery behind their deaths, and the tension over who’s likely to survive their new tasks makes for some, let’s say, awkward moments.
In addition, they’re trying to keep their secret from the temperamental Susannah, who might be the novel’s most interesting character. She senses, on some level, that something doesn’t ring true about Laura, Daniel and Mo’s reappearance.
The awkwardness at least gives Mo, the snarkiest of the three reanimated teens, the chance to flash his wit. After Laura says “Let’s do this!” as they get ready to raise new questions with Mr. Anabin, Mo rolls his eyes: “When they make the tragic movie of our return from the dead, I hope someone writes you better dialogue.”
The stakes keep getting higher, especially when a mysterious goddess, Malo Mogge, shows up in Lovesend; she has a keen interest in Laura, Mo and Daniel. Malo wears ridiculous clothes and sports a beehive hairdo, but she’s also got a monumental ego, a menacing smile, and some scary powers, like the ability to raise gigantic ocean waves to wash away seaside homes.
Yet Link has a light touch, delivering all this with humor, with compassion for the losses the main characters have all experienced in some fashion, and with references to some of her favorite writers as a teen — V. C. Andrews, Barbara Michaels, Mary Stewart. “The Lord of the Rings,” the Harry Potter books, and even Woody Guthrie get a nod, too.
And, Link says, she wanted her novel “to have some of that wild energy that’s also present in supernatural melodramas like ‘The Vampire Diaries’ or ‘Sabrina.’ I love that feeling that even a small town can turn out to be hiding enormous secrets, magic, and monsters.”
Link has taught writing and literature in various places — she’s currently teaching at Smith College — and her time among young people seems to have paid off, yielding a novel with likable, believable and imaginative teen characters.
Adolescence, she says, is “an excellent place to approach character from ... language and its possibilities are so lively … and meanings or inflections can be so varied from one group to another that it’s pretty thrilling to think about as a writer.”
Kelly Link will present “The Book of Love” Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley (registration is requested). She’ll be in conversation with Yvette Ndolovu, an award-winning short story writer and MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.