Dazzling and weird inversion
St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves By Karen Russell Chatto & Windus, 246pp, $ 42.95
KAREN Russell’s first volume of short stories describes a darkly enchanted world. Like a child’s map of some invented kingdom, its landmarks are magical grottoes, giant conches and alligator- infested swamps instead of roads and cities. Within its borders, mythological creatures and strange beasts cohabit with women and men.
The stories chart adolescence as though it was a place rather than a physical state, a region enlarged by imagination but circumscribed by lack of experience — a negative, in other words, of our adult world. Here it is the grown- ups who exist at a mythic remove, as though an ‘‘ adults only’’ sign had replaced the legend ‘‘ here be dragons’’.
The results of this inversion are magnificently weird. Parental abandonment, burgeoning sexuality, body image issues, sibling rivalry and peer pressure — all the tripwires of adolescence — are explored in forms richer and stranger, and employing voices more innocent and knowing, than any ordinary realism could provide.
A brief precis gives some of their flavour. In one story two brothers find swimming goggles that allow them to see undersea ghosts and use them to search for their drowned sister. In another, a boy describes his father, a minotaur, as he pulls the family wagon in a train of settlers headed to a newly opened parcel of frontier land. In a third, a parentless young girl looks jealously on as her obese sister is possessed by a lewd and destructive phantom boyfriend.
None of this is as perverse as it sounds. Even the most shocking events are neutralised by Russell’s gaudy, cartoonish depictions of them and undermined by a humour that knows exactly when to dip into frat- boy scatology or draw itself up to mock- ironic heights. They are also helped along by prose with all the unexpected rightness of poetry: a moonless sky ‘‘ dark as an empty safe’’; or eyes with a tracery of veins ‘‘ like a leaf pressed between the pages of a book’’; or the ‘‘ hard, mica falseness on your tongue’’ of artificial snow.
Russell is so good at word- painting that some of these stories suffer from an excess of talent: her madly inventive landscapes, like van Gogh’s, blaze up and sometimes blow the whole canvas out. But when she gets it right, the dazzle illuminates rather than obscures. One of the best, Haunting Olivia — about the brothers and their undersea death- vision goggles — draws real insight from the most fantastic effects: On the fifth night of our search, I see a plesiosaur. It is a megawatt behemoth, bronze and blue- white, streaking across the floor like a torpid comet. It wings towards me with a slow, avian grace. Each of its ghost flippers pinwheels coloured light. I try to swim out of its path, but the thing’s too big to avoid. That Leviathan fin, it shivers right through me. It’s a light in my belly, cold and familiar. And I flash back to a snippet from school, a line from a poem or science book, I can’t remember which: There are certain prehistoric things that swim beyond extinction. The most astonishing thing about this story is the date of its first appearance: in the June 2005 issue of The New Yorker , when the author was 22 years old.
Geordie Williamson is a Sydney literary critic.