Tuesday, April 23, 2013

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

Karen Russell is a significant new author and her work, particularly her short fiction, has generated substantial interest, perhaps because she obviates the distinction between the mimetic and fantastic genres, between speculative and realist fiction, simply by writing as if the distinction did not exist.

And so in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, we encounter insomniac prophets, boys hunting the ghost of their dead sister, titanic spiral shells as fairground exhibits, spirit possession, werewolves, and minotaurs on the Great Western Migration. These inhabit stories that focus on the uncertainty and difficulty of the transition to adulthood. The difficulty for the reader is not so much in identifying the fantastic as in determining how these elements are cogent to the story. What does it mean, for example, that the narrator's father in "from Children's Reminiscences of the Western Migration" is a minotaur? The figure is neither wholly figurative nor wholly mundane; not simply an image of the strength and stubbornness of purpose a child might project onto a father, or an ironic transplantation of the mythical beast of the Labyrinth into the linear myth of western expansion. Russell's stories excel in this deadpan delivery of the fantastic, masked by the heightened, almost hallucinatory quality of her prose, teasing us with the scent of multiple implications that never lead to fixed points.

Russell's stories often end unhappily, or on the ambiguous verge of disaster, as though succumbing to a kind of narrative entropy in which all the choices and possibilities of maturity are bad ones. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can make the reader uneasy, ambivalent about the reading experience itself.

One of Russell's techniques struck me in an oddly personal way. In a couple of stories she has the habit of injecting exotic sounding names (Toowoomba, Aokeroa [sic], Rangi, Waitaki Valley, Mr Oamaru) into her text. Perhaps they are picked at random; perhaps they are consciously chosen to create estrangement, to suggest dislocation. But I have spent a lot of time in the real Waitaki Valley, and for me this transposition of place-names was disconcerting, an overlay of fictional terrain and real spaces, which seemed to pose an interpretative puzzle, a cypher for which the key is still absent. Perhaps that's the aim.

Nevertheless, these are fluid, imaginative, inventive stories that mark the edges of new terrain for fiction.