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Kelly Link's debut novel 'The Book of Love' is magical, confusing, heartfelt, strange

Random House

For years, fans of Kelly Link, one of the finest purveyors of contemporary short fiction, have wondered what the author would be able to do with a full novel — and have eagerly waited for her to deliver one.

That wait ends now with the release of The Book of Love, Link's debut novel. And the author has embraced the freedom granted by a longer format, delivering a 600-page behemoth of a novel that shatters reality while pulling readers into the lives of several characters and obliterating any perceived dividing line between speculative fiction and literary fiction.

As an avid reader and book reviewer, I'm looking forward to seeing how other reviewers tackle a synopsis of this novel. The narrative starts late one night when Laura, Daniel, and Mo find themselves in a classroom with their music teacher and a strange entity. The youngsters are dead, but they're not. They disappeared a year ago from their hometown of Lovesend, Massachusetts. They were presumed dead, and they are, but now that they're back, their teacher, who possesses magical powers, alters reality. Instead of dead, they're all coming back from a long trip to study in Ireland. Their teacher knows what happened...maybe.

With their story in their heads and their new reality in place. the teenagers are sent back to their previous lives, where they must cope with everything that happened during their absence while simultaneously trying to figure out what will happen next. Also, there was a cryptic message for them on the blackboard of the room where they appeared: "2 RETURN/2 REMAIN." What does it mean? How does that math affect the outcome of their return? Their life as the undead is already complicated enough, but their bizarre revivification has brought something other than the teenagers from the other side; supernatural entities that have their own agendas. As Laura, Daniel, and Mo navigate their new situation and adapt to their new realities, they must also crack the mystery of their return, and more than their own resurrection hangs in the balance.

That's a lengthy synopsis, but it barely scratches the surface of The Book of Love, which also delves into the complications of love and friendship, family drama, grief, resilience, and the unlimited power of adaptability while delivering a tale of supernatural menace that also explores what it truly means to be alive. After years of award-winning short stories in some great venues and a few outstanding short story collections like Get in Trouble, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and White Cat, Black Dog, this novel is proof that Link can be as strange, entertaining, and witty in novel form as she is when writing short stories.

The Book of Love is a narrative about love — and death and resurrection and kissing people and growing up and sibling rivalry and horror. This is a story about stories that even touches on writing. Mo's grandmother, Maryanne, who passed away while Mo was away, was a prolific writer who wrote 73 books in 42 years. Writing allowed her to build a good life and to take care of Mo after his mother passed away. She was also a Black woman. Little details like that open the door to new things, so while Link is telling us about Mo, she also gives us Maryanne's biography while also discussing publishing and the intricacies of a Black woman writing a very popular series about a white woman. Stories within stories, narratives that delve into memories, and expansive passages what go deep into the psychological and emotional inner worlds of the characters are common. In fact, this book will be too much for some readers. This is an entertaining novel, but it's also a barrage of ideas and minutiae, a veritable onslaught of language and narratives that deviate from the core of the story.

This is a long book that's simultaneously dazzling and dizzying. Some lines cut with their clarity and sincerity while some plot elements are puzzling. Link is a wizard writing spells that obey a dream logic only she fully understands. At once a book for adults that's full of elements that make it feel like a fantasy YA novel, a story about survival and danger that starts with a group of dead kids and only gets weirder from there, and a narrative that shows a mighty writer with a unique voice at the height of her powers, The Book of Love is, simply put, a magical, confusing, heartfelt, strange, wonderfully written novel that delivers everything fans of Link's short fiction expected while also packing a few surprises.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gabino Iglesias
[Copyright 2024 NPR]