The Book of Love by Kelly Link review – a magical debut of life after life

<span>Tongue in cheek … characters discuss magic while trying to work out the controls on a hot tub.</span><span>Photograph: Fiordaliso/Getty Images</span>
Tongue in cheek … characters discuss magic while trying to work out the controls on a hot tub.Photograph: Fiordaliso/Getty Images

The Book of Love is the much-anticipated debut novel from Kelly Link, whose short stories have made her a Pulitzer prize finalist. Often magical and uncanny, unfailingly funny, they cover everything from virtual boyfriends to faery handbags, plus legions of creepy rabbits.

This is another modern fairytale, with shades of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At the centre are three teenagers: Laura, Daniel and Mo. A year ago, they died; now they find themselves brought back to life in the music room of the local high school. The man who has brought them back is the eerie Mr Anabin, who tells them only that they must now learn magic – although he won’t be teaching them how. Meanwhile, a sinister stranger has come along with them, seemingly a handsome man, but perhaps something quite different. This is Bogomil, who says that two of them will go back to the dark, frightening not-place they’ve just escaped. In order to avoid that fate, they must find out how they died, work out how to use magic, and recognise it when it’s being used against them.

Link’s characters are all brilliantly fast-talking and fast-thinking, their conversations full of wordplay and in-jokes

Most novels with a big fantastical element set out to make magic extraordinary, glamorous – magical. The Book of Love rejects that so entirely that sometimes it seems as though it’s having an allergic reaction. The magic here is always insistently ordinary. The villain of the piece, Malo Mogge, is a goddess, but one who reminds Laura’s sister of a teapot. Characters discuss magic while trying to work out the heat controls on a Jacuzzi. When the epic history behind the events unspooling in the narrative present is revealed at last, it’s told awkwardly on a long bus journey.

By the end, people are turning into unicorns or fleas or having sex as foxes, while an old guitar becomes a girl, but it’s all on a level with teapots and Jacuzzi controls – tongue always in cheek. This, of course, can be delightful, but it doesn’t always work in the book’s favour. The teapot goddess is a genuine threat, and by the final act terrible things are happening, but because magic has appeared throughout as a backdrop to teen relationships rather than the star of the show, those big supernatural events land awkwardly. It’s a tricky tightrope, negotiating comic and epic in the same story, and the book wobbles at the end.

Something else that never quite feels stable is the pacing. A slow pace is often necessary for world-building, but here it’s a function of the characters’ apparent lack of interest in the circumstances around their deaths – they reconnect with friends and partners as if nothing has happened. There’s a strong sense that Link is much more interested in the dynamics of teen social circles than in the plot on which those dynamics ostensibly hang. The first chapters set the book up as a plot-driven fantasy mystery, with an exciting in medias res opening that seems to promise the book will focus on what on earth has happened to the newly resurrected characters, and how, and why. If the beginning was framed differently, so that readers expected a story mainly about teen relationships with just a scattering of magic in the background, it might have felt more honest. That said, it is called The Book of Love, not The Book of Magic.

What never wobbles is the writing itself. The prose is diamond-sharp; it’s hard to imagine Link ever writing a clunky sentence or a bad description. Her characters are all brilliantly fast-talking and fast-thinking, their conversations full of wordplay and in-jokes. As people, they are multi-faceted; charming and understandable and tragic, as well as a bit obnoxious. It is always a writer’s temptation to make characters a bit better than real life, to encourage readers to like them (an urge Link gently lampoons in the form of the heroines in Mo’s grandmother’s romance novels). Here, though, Link is brave enough to give Laura’s sister a pretty serious problem with personal hygiene, Laura something of a god complex, and Mr Anabin a taste for terrible slogan T-shirts. This soon makes all her characters feel like family: by turns lovable and enraging.

• The Book of Love by Kelly Link is published by Head of Zeus (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply. Natasha Pulley’s The Mars House will be published in March by Gollancz.