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

Title The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night
Author Jen Campbell
Genre Short Stories, Fantasy, Magical Realism
Format eARC
Page Length 224
Publication Date 02 Nov 2017
Publisher Two Roads
Read Date 07-31 Dec 2017
Rating 4.432787 stars – Recommended

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.

A little on each story.

Animals – 4 stars
A wonderful modern day fairy tale exploring love, it’s sincerity, and how some people can manipulate this for great power. Animal hearts are regularly used to transplant into people in this world. A man receives a heart that he has ordered online, and we follow him on a short journey of him caring for and preparing the heart. A nice ending that I didn’t see coming.

Jacob – 4 stars
A child, Jacob, writes a rambling letter to a weather forecaster. Although on the surface this may feel a little chaotic, there are some deep philosophical thoughts explored. Jen captures the confusement and naive questioning of children wonderfully in this.

Plum Pie, Zombie Green, Yellow Bee, Purple Monster – 4 stars
Trippy as hell. Children that are human/plant hybrids (I think) and the pain they go through when being pruned. One of the children/plants is missing and the rest of the gang decided to leave a message for her. I like this, but I feel there may be more to the story than what I am understanding.

In the Dark – 3 stars
A silent soldier walks into a woman’s kitchen and sits down without saying a word. Now, what would you do? Probably say “Erm, get the fuck out!”, well our protag doesn’t. Instead she spends half an hour trying to converse with him. I found the way she instantly becomes submissive to him frustrating yet fascinating at the same time. Who is this mysterious man, and what is he doing?

Margaret and Mary and the End of the World – 5 stars
Well, I adored this. A woman visits the art gallery to view Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Rossetti. During her observation of the painting, we are taken on a number of mini journeys exploring the narrator’s struggle with abuse, anorexia and pregnancy.

The man looks impressed.
‘I often look for God in this picture,’ he said. ‘Do you believe in God?’
‘That’s not the point, is it?’
‘Isn’t it?’
‘No, it’s not.’ I wish he’d disappear. I close my eyes and count to ten.

Little Deaths – 3 stars
This had so much potential, but was just a little too short. Ghosts of the dead are captured, and kept in wine bottles, jam jars and the such to be kept as personal souvenirs or traded throughout the world. Different people produce different coloured ghosts with some being more valuable than others. This story does a grand job of exploring loss, memories, and grief. I just really wanted it to be longer.

Government priest-doctors, like this one, believe that the ghosts are pockets of death which can be manipulated in labs, edited and liquidised. They claim that one of these days they’ll be able to use them to inject us with immortality. And then these ghosts that we accidentally birth inside ourselves, and hiccough out several times a day, will disappear for good. Then we will be empty. Right now, we are ghost hotels.

The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night – 5 stars
Another one that I adored. A woman sits by the window at 3am and gets pensive when looking at the apple tree in the garden. The (almost) entire story is told in dialogue, and it’s a masterpiece to behold. The couple discuss creation myths and beginnings in general. It’s just beautiful, with a deep sense of melancholy throughout. After I first finished this, I went back and reread it before moving on.

Pebbles – 2 stars
A love story. A woman compares the feelings, emotions and extremes of love and war. This heavily covers two topics I have little interest in. Love and War. But, it was well written and did make me think. I felt it wasn’t really explained if the woman she talks about being in love with really did exist, or if it was someone she was aspiring to love. The story is vague in that sense and I like those kind of open ended questions.

Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel – 2 stars
This was my least favourite story in the collection. It has a change of atmosphere to the rest of the stories and I didn’t really like that. It is a gothic tale of a woman and her niece running a hotel where patrons can stay the night in a coffin in order to get closer to lost loved ones. It was a little predictable and didn’t really feel like it belonged in the rest of the collection. The writing remained strong throughout though.

Sea Devils – 5 stars
A girl, and her friend, Tabs, spend the summer killing crabs. The girls are corrupted by deep religious beliefs and preachings. The crabs are the work of the devil, demons in disguise and they must be destroyed. On the surface this story can be about what happens when Tabs starts to desire popularity and other sinful things, and how the time she spends with our narrator (I don’t remember her being named) dwindles. But there was so much more between the lines, so much said without being said, and so much for us as the reader to speculate on. I loved this. The contrast between the naivety of the narrator and the horrors that are clearly happening just out of sight is excellent. Jen really shows off her skill as a writer here.

Human Satellites – 3 stars
A sci-fi short about the discovery of a planet called The Hours. The Hours is ‘composed of soundbites from across the universe.’ I’ll be honest – I just don’t know if I truly understood what was going on here. I think this was more of a story about the conflict between those that believe we should be hostile to new worlds and discoveries, and those of us making huge peace signs out of daisies and (maybe foolishly) welcoming all.

Bright White Lights – 4 stars
A story that addresses bodily difference and disfigurement, and the ‘normalities’ of life. Jen does this so well. This is full of excellent passages that left me feeling fed up and annoyed one minute, and entertained and smiling the next. A nice solid ending to the collection.

I took my time when reading this collection. Normally, with a short story collection I would read one story and instantly move on to the next. I think I enjoy short stories more when I read one, then take some time to process the story before moving on.

This collection was highly enjoyable. All the stories have a dreamlike quality to them. I love magical realism more than any other genre but it is rarely done well. Here, it is done extremely well. These stories are thought provoking and melodic in tone. I didn’t know about Jen’s other work before reading this, (I have seen on other reviews that she has a youtube channel) but it is clear that she is a poet. Her prose and writing style is captivating. I’m really glad that I picked this up and will probably go back and read some of these stories again.

I received a copy of this from Netgalley. My thanks to the publisher for this opportunity. These are my honest thoughts of the book.

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  1. Hi CJ, I’m reading this at the moment and really enjoying it particularly the first story Animals at the moment – I think I’m nearly halfway through? She is a beautiful writer and you can see her love of fairytales shine through. Terrific review! 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think I’ve read enough (or even- any?) magical realism books to know what it’s really, truly like, but the way you describe the stories individually makes me want to read some of these myself.
    I actually considered this collection when I came across the title on Netgalley but I am more of a cautious requester, so I passed on it…

    Liked by 1 person

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