Karen Russell is already on her way to becoming a literary superstar, insofar as such a thing is possible these days. Her first novel, 2011’s Swamplandia! was a finalist for Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a high honor even considering that no award was presented. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is Russell’s 2006 short story collection, released when the author was only 25. In it, she displays skill, precision, and invention that is uncommon for an author of any age. The stories in the collection run the gamut between disappointingly pretentious to strangely transcendent, making for an enjoyable, if uneven, whole.
Russell is certainly writing literary fiction–that is, in my prickly definition, fiction that holds imagery, language, and metaphor up as primary concerns. (One could argue, quite rightly, that all fiction has these concerns, but I wish to draw a distinction between the style of work Russell writes and other work that has obvious syntactic and stylistic differences.) We get stories focused on the complications of growing up, of trying to fit into new social situations, of dealing with the growing awareness of parental fallibility. Then we get a story with a Minotaur father pulling a wagon across the unsettled nineteenth-century United States, or the one where a boy finds a pair of swimming goggles that allow him to see ghosts. The two qualities aren’t extricable; each story is dependent on the marriage of these two seemingly incompatible literary concerns. It’s an interesting high-wire act, even more interesting considering the mainstream literary attention Russell has received. Her stories have hallmarks of contemporary literary realism, sprinkled in with a gleeful, disruptive love for genre tropes and the outright weird. A few fall flat, but many of the stories are sharp, surprising gems that call into question the way we have traditionally classified literature. It’s not really useful to reduce Russell’s work to either “literary” or “genre.” Her work makes a convincing claim that, to some extent, descriptive terms like those have limited utility. This is simply good writing.
I found myself with a strange mix of readerly emotions while reviewing this book. I sometimes rolled my eyes at an overly ornate sentence or at half-baked attempts at emotional or metaphorical resonance. Often this was because it felt like Russell was using intentionally strange metaphors and images to gesture toward meaning that seemed absent to me. But then, often in the very same story, I would be broadsided by a passage that would leave me staring mutely at the page, knocked flat by the clarity and perfection of a detail or character exchange. Russell uses weirdness to deepen and sharpen her metaphors (such as in the superb “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Western Migration”), while in others she leans on weirdness a little too much, relying on surrealistic, discordant images to effect the reader (such as in “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows.”) The best stories use the weird elements as a means to making meaning, rather than as a focal point.
Sense of place is also important is nearly every one of the stories. The sweaty Florida setting is rendered in the stunning coastal caverns of “Haunting Olivia,” the roadside gator-wrestling show of “Eva Wrestles the Alligator,” and as a counterpoint to the false indoor winter wonderland in “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows.” The misty, mysterious Everglades are described with an otherworldliness and just-left-of-center quality that they almost become mythic, full of history, malice, and beauty. The stories in this collection are so enmeshed with the setting that they simply could not have taken place in any other location.
My most significant criticism is in regards to Russell’s choice of narrators. Many of the stories are narrated by precocious children with large vocabularies and a sharp talent for introspection and self-awareness. Many of these narrators are young boys, usually from broken or reconfigured families. Taken on their own, these narrators are fine, but when reading the stories closely together, the voices tend to blur. Russell has a startling command of language, but her (mostly first-person) child narrators share a similar speech style, which diminished my enthusiasm for a few stories. I kept waiting for Russell to break away from the mold. A few of the stories do so with great success, but over half of the stories feel very similar.
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is an uneven collection that left me seething with a kind of blissful envy. Russell stumbles in a few of the stories, but the ones that work do so on a stupefyingly high level, to say nothing of the writer’s age at the time of publication. Reading the collection made me very excited to check out her renowned novel, and also deepened my anticipation for her new collection of stories, which is out next February.
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves gets four pieces of lasagna from me. Not every story is a winner, but those that are are beautiful and unlike anything else I’ve read.