Wednesday, 4 June 2014

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

Charting loss, love, and the difficult art of growing up, these stories unfurl with wicked humour and insight. Two young boys make midnight trips to a boat graveyard in search of their dead sister, who set sail in the exoskeleton of a giant crab; a boy whose dreams foretell implacable tragedies is sent to 'Sleepaway Camp for Disordered Dreamers' (Cabin 1, Narcoleptics; Cabin 2, Insomniacs; Cabin 3, Somnambulists. . . ); a Minotaur leads his family on the trail out West, and finally, in the collection's poignant and hilarious title story, fifteen girls raised by wolves are painstakingly re-civilised by nuns.
Amazon description

Karen Russell has gone on to write several more highly acclaimed books since this, her debut collection of short stories. "Outrageously imaginative and profoundly funny... surreal... impressive," announces one of four glowing reviews on the back cover. I therefore approached St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves with high expectations. And it is without doubt full of impressive, surreal stories. Karen Russell has an extraordinary imagination, rich vocabulary (which had me reaching for the dictionary on occasions, not always with success) and strong writing style.  But as for profoundly funny - I'm not sure I was reading the same book. There were some amusing descriptions but many of the stories left me feeling sad and one - The Star-Gazer's Log of Summer-Time Crime - I found so unsettling (partly for personal reasons) that I didn't finish it.

As is always the case there were some stories which worked better for me than others. My favourites were Haunting Olivia, in which two brothers search for their drowned sister, from Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration, an account by the son of a Minotaur, and St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. 

In these and in other stories Karen Russell presents a familiar but surreal version of small-town or rural America. Several of the stories are set in the same run-down Louisiana area, with characters and places reappearing.  The themes of her stories are very real. The title story might be seen as a fantasy account of the historical treatment of the children of aboriginal peoples in schools in which they were "tamed" and taught to despise the ways of their parents and ancestors. It is also a story of children or young people ganging up on others. One girl refuses or is unable to be tamed and the pack (including her own sisters) turn on her. Isolated or outcast children form a common motif throughout the collection and the conclusions of the stories aren't exactly happy ones.  That's if they have a conclusions. 

As I have noted elsewhere on this blog, magic realist short stories often seem to be inconclusive and in previous reviews I have said that this hasn't bothered me. On this occasion however the inconclusiveness was so great that it felt as though the stories were actually half-finished novellas or indeed novels. (What it must be like to have so many story ideas!) All of which suggests to me that I should read Russell's  novel Swamplandia which is set in the same run-down amusement park as the first story in this collection. I have no doubt after reading this book that I want to read more of Russell's work. I will be interested to see if she continues to portray the world through the eyes of young people, which she does brilliantly, or expands to include the adult point of view. (There is one story in the collection which has the POV of an elderly man).  And I would like to know what happens in the end.

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