The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night: Jen Campbell

★★★½

Some of you might already be familiar with Jen Campbell, the compiler of Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops. Although I haven’t yet read these compendiums of the odd, I’ve seen snippets here and there and they’ve made me laugh out loud. So I was curious to see how Campbell’s talents would translate to the short story medium. The answer is: extremely well; although these unsettling stories aren’t at all what one would expect from this tongue-in-cheek observer of human nature. Or… on the other hand… perhaps they are, for they reach deep inside us to the darker corners of the psyche, and their unifying feature is that these miniature worlds seem so straightforward, so simple, until you look between the lines and realise that something, subtly, is out of kilter.

It’s always hard to review a collection of short stories, so I think it’s best to do a quick summary of each one to whet your appetite. Things kick off with Animals, a disturbing tale of a near-future in which love has become a commodity, with morbid effects. The chilling narration of that tale gives way to the innocence of Jacob, a short but moving story in the form of a letter from a child who is struggling to comprehend the emotional complexity of the world around him. In Plum Pie, Zombie Green, Yellow Bee, Purple Monster, a group of very special children begin to challenge the rules of their botanical summer camp, while In The Dark is more of a vignette than a story – like a dream half-remembered – in which the narrator has a strange visitor. One of my favourites was Margaret and Mary and the End of the World, which uses Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini in Tate Britain to explore themes of incarnation, frailty, starvation, mothers, children, love and loss. It’s a painting I loved as a teenager, so I was very happy to see it featuring as the fulcrum of a story.

In Little Deaths, Campbell gives us a world in which our memories mutate into ghosts and experience is valued only in death. The eponymous story, The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night, is actually written as a playscript: two lovers discussing how things began – whether that’s the universe, or their lives together. It’s a beautiful evocation of the kind of rambling conversation that you can have late at night; but there’s a poignant tweak. In Pebbles, a memory of childhood war blends into a present of self-realisation. Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel tells the story of a woman and her niece, who promise vulnerable visitors a chance to taste death for a night – but which highlights the dangers of playing with powers you don’t understand. In Sea Devils, the narrator and her best friend stalk crabs and dream of finding a way out of their suffocating lives, chafing at the boundaries of their world. And, finally, Human Satellites questions the morality of exploiting the gifts of a very strange planet.

Campbell’s world is one in which the strange seems familiar, and the extraordinary everyday: I’d class these stories as magical realism rather than fantasy. She’s fascinated by the darkness at the heart of human experience, and the way in which we yearn to transcend ourselves and our brief lives to become something greater than ourselves. For a debut collection, her voice is assured and confident, though I found that some stories were more memorable than others. I’d pick out Animals, Margaret and Mary and the End of the World, and The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night as my favourites among these stories; Pebbles and In the Dark didn’t quite grab me in the same way. But I really enjoyed the ‘feel’ of these brooding, quirky stories and I’d be curious to see what Campbell would come up with if she ever decided to have a go at a full novel.

For those who’d like to find out a little more about Campbell, she’s a book reviewer as well as a writer. Take a look at her lively YouTube channel to hear more about the books she’s read and loved. Maybe you’ll find some new recommendations! As for me, I’m going to have to hunt down a copy of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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