Daz­zling and weird in­ver­sion

St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves By Karen Rus­sell Chatto & Win­dus, 246pp, $ 42.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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.

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