A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Karen Russell was just twenty-five when she made her publishing debut with this remarkable collection of short stories. Subsequently named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists (a bit odd, given that her first novel, Swamplandia! is yet to be published), Russell is now widely recognised as a rising star of American fiction.
Many of the stories in this collection are set in the Florida Everglades (although she now lives in New York, Russell was born in Miami), and most feature the surreal escapades of children and social misfits. By turns magical, creepy and humorous, the stories take as their subjects a family of alligator wrestlers, theme park hoodlums, a Minotaur on the Westward Migration, little girls who sail away in crab shells, and a boys’ choir that strives to split glaciers with their high notes – not to mention the eponymous tale of a boarding school for girls raised by wolves.
There’s even a sleep-away camp for “disordered dreamers”, which provides the author with an opportunity for some fine character-spinning:
There’s Felipe, a parasomniac with a co-incidence of spirit possession. He caught his ghost after stealing a guanabana from a roadside tree, unaware that its roots had wound around a mass grave of Moncada revolutionaries. He’s been possessed by Francisco Pais ever since. This causes him to sleep-detonate imaginary grenades and sleep-yell “Viva la Revolucion!” while sleep-pumping his fist in the air. He is a deceptively apolitical boy by day.
Every one of Russell’s characters is distinctly memorable, although some are more colourful than others (the pink Yeti who drives a zamboni in Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows is one example). But even those everyday personages who fade in and out of the background are pithily captured: take Mr. Uribe – who “looks like an animate peanut” – or Mr. Pappadakis:
Mr. Pappadakis smells like Just for Men peroxide dye and eucalyptus foot unguents. He has a face like a catcher’s mitt. The whole thing puckers inward, drooping with the memory of some dropped fly ball.
Russell’s eclectic language suits her outlandish subject matter, and I must admit to occasional flushes of vocabulary envy. At times, however, the virtuosic writing detracts from the stories themselves; almost every one features the same voice, regardless of who’s narrating. I could suspend disbelief just long enough to cope with a child narrator who used words such as undulant, polyps and alluvial in every second sentence, but when it came to reading three or four such stories in a row, my patience did occasionally wear thin. That said, Russell’s fearless expression offers a fine antidote to the self-consciously spare prose of many contemporary authors, and the risk-taking that stems from her love of language and dazzling imagination will be an inspiration to readers and writers alike.
St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves; Karen Russell, Vintage 2006, 246 pp. ISBN 978-0-307-27667-4