Title: The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night
Author: Jen Campbell
Rating: 4/5 Stars
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Hachette Australia in exchange for an honest review.
As a self-professed lover of fairy tales, their origins, and their reinvention, I was primed to love the whimsical and beautifully written collection of stories. Within these short stories readers will find tales imbued with the ghost of familiar fairy tales, intertwined in with historical facts that are stranger than fiction. The stories within this collection are driven by voices of the outcast, weaving the border between reality and fantasy, yet it remains consistently enchanting due to the beautiful imageries the writing conjures. The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night is a testament to the enduring power of fairy tales and their ability to withstand the test of time.
I’ll be reviewing some of my favourite stories within the collection below:
First Lines: “These days, you can find anything you need at the click of a button.
That’s why I bought her heart online.”
The collection is off to a powerful and haunting start with Animals, a story set in a world where fickle and impermanent human hearts can be exchanged for hearts of a different kind – ones made of glass, or hearts which once beat in the chest of another animal. Fixated on finding the perfect heart for his girlfriend, the narrator of this story orders the heart of a swan. What follows is a tale that examines love and possession, intermingled with passages about hearts and animals from both myth and history. It’s fairy tale retelling meets Frankenstein: raw and visceral, dark yet beautiful, filled with human thirst – in short, it’s the perfect way to begin this collection.
First Lines: “Dear Miss Winter,
My name is Jacob Quinn.”
This charming short story is written in the format of a letter, sent from a young boy by the name of Jacob to Miss Winter – a weather forecaster he frequently sees on television. With childlike curiousity, Jacob begins asking about his troubled sister, who seems to have two identities warring within herself. It’s a quiet contemplation on the larger questions of life, ones that are certain to plague the minds of adults, but are best voiced via the earnest questions of a child. I found it very endearing, and I found myself wishing I could hear Miss Winter’s response to Jacob’s letter.
MARGARET AND MARY AND THE END OF THE WORLD
First Lines: “Once upon a time, there were four horsemen of the apocalypse.”
One of the most ambitious and skilful stories of this collection, this particular tale draws on numerous sources: Biblical references, art history, and the ever-present fairy tale imageries. Using a beguiling veneer of miracles and magic, this perturbing tale offers cutting commentary child assault, teen pregnancy, and the disturbing misogyny perpetuated by society. This story made me sit up and paid attention, because it demanded to be savoured.
THE BEGINNING OF THE WORLD IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
The titular story of the collection is told entirely via script format, narrating a couple’s whimsical and nostalgic reflections on the beginning and ending of the world. In spite of the dialogue format of the story, Julian and Evelyn still felt earnest and distinct. Their conversation eventually leads them to recollect more personal beginnings, such as their first encounter with one another. An understated and lovely story.
BRIGHT WHITE HEARTS
First Lines: “’The sky is falling!’ I cried ‘It’s falling fast!’
‘It’s falling into the ocean.’”
Another of my absolute favourite in the collection, this particular story follows a mermaid on display in a small aquarium. I found the writing in this story particularly haunting and vivid. Powerful emotions and evocative imageries worked in concert in this tale to offer an insightful commentary on deformity and the show the world expects to see from those it deems as ‘abnormal’. Jen Campbell is passionate about representation of disfigurement in the media, you can find a list of her videos on the topic here.
I read several short stories collection every year, and this particular collection is my favourite of 2017 (it shares the crown with Her Body and Other Parties, another excellent and subversive set of magical short tales). If you have read this book, I would love to know which stories were your favourites.