Review: The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night
I’ve been pondering over this review for a while now, partly because I excel at procrastination and partly because never has a review ever felt so important. I want to do this book justice, and I want to review it in a way that makes it clear that what I love most about this book is the quality of the writing and not the person that wrote it.
Make your selves comfortable my lovelies. This could go on a while.
I feel, kind of, like I’ve been waiting for this book forever, or if not forever, then for a really really long time and nobody likes a humblebrag I know, but I totally knew this day would come. I knew from the first time I read Jen’s writing circa a million years ago that she’d get to this point and I am unbelievably pleased that she has. I’m also unbelievably pleased, for my own sake, that this book is stunningly good and I don’t have to do some kind of awkward ‘yeah it’s ok let’s move swiftly on’ kind of post about it. It’s lush. Jen’s writing is lush, a lot of it has this gorgeous stream of consciousness feel to it, which totally ticks all my boxes and it’s so so whimsical. (Whimsy. I love that word.)
Years ago Jen wrote a story called Second Skin. I have a copy of it typed on A4 paper, in a box of special things. It starts 'there was a girl who ran marathons wearing nothing but sellotape...' and it is incredible. I mean it. So good.
When Jen first told me about The Beginning of the World, that story is the first thing I thought of. I've read lots of Jen's work in the years we've been pals but that piece has always been my favourite.
And then I got this book.
I read the first story in the collection, 'Animals,' and I had to message her and say 'yo Jen, remember Second Skin? You have EXCELLED yourself' and also all of a sudden AS IF MY EXPECTATIONS WEREN'T HIGH ENOUGH suddenly they were higher than the actual sky because this first story in this gem of a collection, it blew me away.
It’s weird and clever and a little bit creepy but also it's this really clever dissection of human nature; of the nature of love and of relationships and of how fucked up relationships can be under the guise of love that really isn't love at all and how you can trap a person by calling something love when it's actually SO TOXIC. It’s cleverly interwoven with fairytales and facts about swans and hearts and kings and queens and it's kind of messed up and totally glorious and that's only the first story.
From that point on, I read this book so slowly, (which was hard let me tell you and proof that I am apparently the Queen of self control. Tell that to all the empty Frazzles packets in my bin, fuck's sake). I wanted to tear through it but I was also so aware that I would never get to read these stories for the first time ever again. I dragged it out.
Jacob Quinn in the second story 'Jacob' gave me an ache in my chest. I want to sit quietly by his bed, not under it with him because I don't think he'd like it, but next to it, just so he knew I was there. The tone of this story is entirely different to the tone of the first which is excellent news actually because who wants to read a short story collection of stories that are all the same? NOT ME. The stories in this collection are not. Not the same, I mean and they all stand out. ‘Jacob’ was a lovely story, lovely and thoughtful and somehow delicate.
Oh holy moly this could get SO LONG GUYS. Part of me wants to do a little mini review for each story but I'm not going to because let's leave something for you to do into without any preconceptions. Some stories are short, just a couple of paragraphs and some, obviously, are longer. I promise you though, that they’ll all get under your skin. You need to discover them for yourself, carefully and patiently, like I did.
So, just quickly then let's talk about a few more.
I was lucky enough to see the third story, ‘Plum pie. Zombie green. Yellow bee. Purple monster.’ when it was still a WIP; I loved it then and I loved it now. It might be my favourite. Either that or ‘Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel’.
[I'd read a novel length of either of those Jen, of you'd like to get on that kthnx.]
‘Plum pie…’ draws on fairytales to tell its own story [you’ll find that fairytales are a recurring theme in this book, in Jen’s writing generally and she has an excellent series on her YouTube channel if you want to hear her talk about that in more detail. S’really excellent] along with themes of connection and disconnection, love and loss and growing up and it fascinated the hell out of me. I bet the number of times I’ve read it is in double figures now. It felt like part of a bigger picture and I am so desperate for more of it.
The title story made me cry. I realised pretty quickly what this was going to be, where this particular story was going and then I got a funny chest feeling.I read it at the end of a bad week, feeling emotionally fragile and I cried. That's some feat for a short story let me tell you; to get to me like that in so few words is pretty impressive. Also I loved how it was written as a script, so it's all dialogue and some minor direction and yet still hits you right in the feels. Loved it.
‘Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel.’
AUNT LIBBY’S COFFIN HOTEL.
Aunt. Libby's. Coffin. Hotel. Which I could totally talk about for ages and I’m having to hold back from calling Jen and demanding ALL THE ANSWERS AND MORE OF THE WORDS because I have fallen so so hard for this and it kind of ends on a cliff-hanger which is mean. Mean but so so excellent. It’s about a teenage girl who runs a coffin hotel with her Aunt. People can rent coffins by the night and experience death and it’s so damn clever. She has a dog called Cerberus and they dress him in a three-headed suit which made me laugh. There’s Ankaa and Aunt Libby and two of the guests at the hotel and you (or I, I’m projecting) wind up fascinated by them all, by their backgrounds and their reasonings and how they came to be, you want their backstories and you want their ‘what’s nexts’ and this whole world that Jen’s created in just a few pages, and it draws you in somehow.
The final story in the collection, ‘Bright White Hearts’ is….it’s really something. Raw and honest and thought-provoking. It felt somehow like Jen was baring a part of her soul – or maybe that’ just how I read it but it felt like part of her is in these words - and out of all of the stories it felt most like the one with a real and tangible message, a message that’s part fuck you to the people that are quick to judge and part exercise in acceptance. Jen talks a lot about what it’s like, both as a Queer woman and also to have EEC syndrome, and this story feels to me like the closest she gets in her work to really exploring that, and what life can be when you don’t fit in the boxes society lays out for you.
I was born with my fingers joined together, but now they’re separated. Scars scatter my hands like nets, caught by science.
It’s gorgeous and it’s revealing and it makes me feel so many many things. I can’t quite find the adjective I want for this somehow poetic story (which makes sense because if asked I’d say Jen is a poet, first.) it’s not sad, but it made me kind of...melancholy perhaps? It made me feel the things. Nothing terrible happens but it still made me ache. Read between the lines when you read this story please, read between the lines and then spend a little bit of time thinking. Also, the closing line, the line that ends this story and in turn the whole book? It gave me goosebumps.
I wouldn't write this review if I didn't genuinely love the book, by the way. I wouldn't. I'd probably have text Jen and said something along the lines of cool stories dude and then avoided the issue to the point that everybody forgot I'd read it. I'm posting this review because this book is going to blow you away. It's going to be something mega and I want to be able to say you heard it here first.
What would I compare it to? Nothing, really: it's like nothing else I've ever read and like nothing else I will ever read and it will excel purely on it's own merit. I suppose if absolutely pushed I could tell you that it made me feel much the same as I did when I read St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves except amplified by about seventeen billion and that is A Very Good Thing. I don’t think I’ll read anything else as good this year.