Tuesday, September 12, 2006

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,
by Karen Russell (Knopf)

About a year ago, I was reading through the New Yorker's debut fiction issue and I was enchanted by a short story called "Haunting Olivia", about a pair of brothers who set out to look for the ghost of their sister in an abandoned, watery shipyard.

What Russell manages to capture--in the voice of one of the brothers--is the dilemma we all face when we first truly deal with the death of a loved one; delusion, denial, confusion. But what makes Russell's storytelling unique--and throws her lot in with the likes of George Saunders, Aimee Bender, and Kelly Link-- is the unabashed shift into the fantastic to draw out the maximum emotional impact.

In "Haunting Olivia" the boys keep returning night after night, and through the use of 'special' goggles encounter a mounting absurdity of creatures until the narrator spots a plesiosaur, the narrator's wonder grows, while the other brother, Wallow, becomes more desperate with recovering Olivia. The narrator reaches a point where he can go no further, and this is how it ends:
I look for my sister, but it's hopeless. The goggles are all fogged up. Every fish burns lantern-bright, and I can't tell the living from the dead. It's all just blurry light, light smeared like some celestial fingerprint all over the rocks and the reef and the sunken garbage. Olivia could be everywhere.
I was immediately struck by the blend of whimsy with moments of jaw-dropping sentences. Russell can turn a phrase, wrestle nouns and verbs into wholly new emotional shapes, yet never lose sight of the point she's trying to make. It's not an overt message, and it's possible I'm full of shit, but there is something there, in each of the stories, the lingers like a bell struck, there's a pause, a pondering, a 'huhn?' sense.

That's not to say that Russell's stories are boring or preachy; the journey to the moment of profundity is filled with oddities, freaks, dilapidated theme parks, odd cures to such things as lycanthropic parents, and sleep disorders.

The overall theme, if I am to grasp for it, is the transition between youth and adulthood; the build-up we receive, 'girl, you'll be a woman soon', 'you're becoming a man, son', and the promise of secret things we sense but can't quite grasp except that we'll understand when we're 'older', 'bigger', all 'grown-up'. Then we get there and it's like Russell's abandoned theme parks in "Ava Wrestles the Alligator" and "City of Shells"; we say, 'oh, is this it?' Rites of passage are personified in sad and dangerous ways like in "Accident Brief" and "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves", and "Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows."

I know there are readers who dislike the short story form, but Russell is proof that writers pack a great deal in their brief works that, while a novel may be like a cross-country drive with quiet moments and lots of scenery and personages, the short story can be an adrenaline-jolt, a sharp exhilarating experience that lingers--sometimes more strongly-- as long as larger works. I'd been thinking about "Haunting Olivia" for a year, until I stumbled upon the release of this collection (no story collection had been mentioned at the time of the New Yorker publication.), and I was able to immerse myself in the joy of Russell's exuberant imagination and tasty prose...

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