Vulpes Libris

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.

St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves, by Karen Russell

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

About Trilby

Born in Toronto but grew up all over the map thanks to her peripatetic journalist parents. After completing degrees from Oxford and the LSE, she spent a year working at a London auction house - but soon gave it up to become a writer. Her first novel - for children 9-14 - will appear in 2009 (Tundra Books). Meanwhile, a "grown-up" novel, set in Ceylon and Flanders in the 1930s, is in the works. Almost a year since receiving a 1910 Sigwalt letterpress, she has yet to decide where the gauge pins go.

8 comments on “St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves, by Karen Russell

  1. sequinonsea
    March 25, 2008

    Wow. This sounds incredible. What an imagination!!

    This took my breath away:

    “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.”

    My writer self is envious! Gosh.

    Great review, Trilby.

  2. Nik
    March 25, 2008

    Does sound good, doesn’t it!

    Nik

  3. Trilby
    March 25, 2008

    Yes – in many ways, it is the book I wish I’d written!

  4. Jackie
    March 25, 2008

    What a creative mind this author has! The characters seem real enough to be graspable, yet fanciful enough to spark one’s imagination. Perhaps reading the stories some time apart would help with the similarity of narrators?

  5. rosyb
    March 27, 2008

    I don’t know. I like the sound of the madness, but I wonder if it might get irritating having too many surreal ideas in the mix at some point. I tend to lose a bit of patience in too much surreality – I like a bit, but not too much.

    Sounds a bit virtuoso, but I’m not getting an impression of what it is really all about/saying?

    “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.”

    This, however, I wholeheartedly like the sound of. Risktaking, language and imagination and NOT YET MORE SPARE MODERN PROSE.

    Hmmm. Can’t make up my mind.

  6. Connor Ryan
    September 13, 2010

    I just finished the book, as far as most of the narrators having the same voice, well that it sort of true. However a lot of the stories are more about dialogue. Also, three of the stories are so exceptional is doesn’t even matter. Picture and old man saying to a young girl visiting him at his retirement home on the floor in pain saying “girl, don’t go. What I feel for you is more than love, it is peninsular. you are my leg of land over dark water… you are the moon, the tidal force that keeps time marching forward.”

    This book is painfully touching and completely worth the it.

  7. Pingback: Where Are They Now? « Vulpes Libris

  8. Pingback: The love of weird in Karen Russell’s short stories | Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on March 25, 2008 by in Entries by Trilby, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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