Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

"St. Lucy's home for girls raised by wolves" by Karen Russell (Vintage, 2008)

Stories from The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, Conjunctions, etc.

She has amongst the most energetic initial paragraphs that I've seen. These themes often figure - lost children, dead children, children on holiday or at camp, absent parents, generation gaps, water. In general, pre-pubescents are trying to understand elder siblings, friends and themselves in settings that aren't mundane.

In "Ava Wrestles the Alligator" Ava, a 12 y.o., shares a bedroom with her 16 y.o. sister, Ossie. Their mother's dead. They're looking after an Alligator park. The mood is set early - "It has a single, airless room; three crude, palmetto windows, with mosquito-blackened sills; a tin roof that hums with the memory of rain. I love it here. Whenever the wind gusts in off the river, the sky rains leaves and feathers. During mating season, the bedroom window rattles with the ardor of birds" (p.3). Ava knows that her sister's doing something over there in the other bed - "Ossie is heavy-breathing. She puts her fist in her mouth, her other hand disappearing beneath the covers. ... Then she moans, softly ... Here is another phase change that I don't understand, solid to void ... The ghost is here. I know it, because I can see my sister disappearing ... The ghost is moving through her, rolling into her hips, making Ossie do a jerky puppet dance under the blankets" (p.5). Nature comes alive - "Most people think that gators have only two registers, hunger and boredom. But these people have never heard an alligator bellow. 'Languidge,' Ms Huerta, our science teacher, likes to lisp, 'is what separates us from the animals.' But that's just us humans being snobby. Alligators talk to one another, and to the moon, with a woman's stridency" (p.10). Later, the other bed's empty. Ava seeks her sister, finds her being absorbed by Nature, drags her back.

"Haunting Olivia" stars a 12 y.o. boy with a 14 y.o. brother and a dead sister. Again, the first paragraph jumps readers into another world - "My brother Wallow has been kicking around Gannon's Boat Graveyard for more than an hour, too embarrassed to admit that he doesn't see any ghosts. Instead, he slaps at the ocean with jilted fury. Curse words come piping out of his snorkel. He keeps pausing to readjust the diabolical goggles" (p.26).

"Z.Z.'s Sleep-Away camp for disordered dreamers" had a motherless character and missing child.

"The Star-Gazer's Log of Summer-Time Crime" is again set at a kind of camp. It's my favourite so far. At first the genre's unclear. SF? Ghosts are mentioned early on. It's realist though. Motherless twins (Ollie and Molly) are away with an often-absent father. Ollie's drawn to a group that dare themselves to do petty crime. He wants to be more separate from his twin, more grown up. But what does "grown up" mean? Ollie has a book about stars. "My dad's version of the book, the staid, declarative Guide to the Galaxy, is nearly identical, except that the graphics are a matte black, and the same information is listed as Fact #47. I guess that's what growing up means, at least according to the publishing industry: phosphorescence fades to black and white, and facts cease to be fun" (p.81).

The out-of-routine settings (institutions, camps, etc) continue, the characters (and their frequent embarrassment about their parents) continue -

  • A family where the father's a Minotaur joins a wagon trail west. The main character's sister disappears on the way.
  • "The Palace of Artificial Snow" is an ice rink where orangutans skate to Phil Collins, After 7pm the adults (mostly single) take over for "The Blizzard". 2 boys (one whose mother is ill and should be looked after) sneak in for their first time.
  • A collection of giant conch shells ("A Merman's Stonehenge") is visited by a school trip. A 10 y.o. girl who's never met her natural father gets trapped in one of the shells overnight with a janitor. The janitor thinks that the shells are haunted - he's heard ghosts. The girl knows that the boss's 14 y.o. daughter entertains boys in the shells, making noises. The girl and janitor are in danger of drowning when a storm begins.
  • In "Out to Sea" I thought generations might at last get on. An old guy, Sawtooth, living on a boat in a retirement community, is regularly visited by Angie, an at-risk youth doing community service. He makes it easy for her to steal from him.
  • "Avalanche" is a ceremony involving singing in a Glacier. The singers are flown there. A plane crashes. The main character's father left years before.
  • "St. Lucy's home for girls raised by wolves" ends the book with another institution. "We sang at the chapel annexed to the home every morning. We understood that this was the humans' moon, the place for howling beyond purpose" (p.239); "The nuns swept our hair back into high, bouffant hairstyles. This made us look more girlish and less inclined to eat people, the way that squirrels are saved from looking like rodents by their poofy tails" (p.242)

So although the ingredients don't vary that much, the proportions do, and the writing is interesting enough.

Other reviews

  • ginger Strand (Orion Magazine) (Like the brilliant George Saunders, Russell uses non-realist situations to pursue a realist goal: illumining the human heart. .. .her imaginative situations explore not only human relations, but those between people and animals, the made world and the natural one. )
  • Sarah Salway (the short review) (betrayal and casual childish cruelty are strong themes in these stories, providing a needed cohesion to a collection otherwise overloaded with outlandish settings and plots. ... In places, however, I found the cruelty too much for the balance of the story ... 'Out to Sea' was possibly my favourite story)

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