St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
written by Karen Russell
published by Vintage Press in 2008
(cover image by Antonio Pisanello)
246 pages in paperback from Big Green Books
a tiny atlas of strange destinations
A reader’s perspective
I hadn’t come across these before I went on the Big Green Bookshop website. It’s always a pleasure to find another writer to enjoy and tell other people about. And I’m happy to say , short story collections are once more becoming popular.
I’d have to say these are not nice little pick-me-ups, the literary equivalent of a cuppa. No, these are more like sippin’ whiskey which you’d best take time to appreciate. They have strange individual flavours, sometimes provoking dark humour, other times tending to the melancholic.
Most of all, they take the reader to places that seem almost credible – only to show their fantastical side. The writing is intelligent, perceptive and contains moments of surreal beauty. These offbeat jaunts feel like sliding into worlds behind Technicolor resort postcards to meet the odd yet sympathetic people in them.
Many of the ten tales focus on coming-of-age in some way. They might suit well-read adolescents as well as adults – in the way that ghost stories cross age boundaries. Readers of any kind will have to accept endings with no fixed conclusion or ‘moral’, and some alternate realities. Not for those who like contemporary realism with simple resolutions. These stories decidedly come at their truths slantwise.
[Recommended if you enjoy Joanne Harris’ #storytime, Neil Gaiman’s short stories or those of Charles de Lint. Please recommend other likely shelfmates!]
A Writers View
I want to steal her kind of magic realism. The way Karen Russell swiftly creates an almost credible set-up, then takes it that little bit further into a parallel dimension of weirdness. For example:
- a run-down marine theme park – with gigantic shells creating a type of mollusc Stonehenge
- an alpine NZ resort – where children sing on a glacier to recall an obscure colonial era event
- a desert town – with the Palace of Artificial Snow where orang-utans perform
It’s so quick, so slippery. Take the collection’s title story: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. It’s all there in those eight words – nuns, separation, a history that requires such an organisation. You know there will be a girl who rebels.
It can even happen in four words: ‘My father, the Minotaur . . .’ in from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration. The juxtaposition of a dullish title which creates one setting – and then up pops an unexpected character. As if a child’s pantomime theatre opened its curtains to reveal Herne the Hunter, Wonder Woman or Anansi.
These miniature worlds delight and disturb – I intend to learn how.