by Karen Russell
August 14th 2007 by Vintage
Paperback, 256 pages
0307276678 (isbn13: 9780307276674)
rating: 5 of 5 stars
A San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year
I came across this book during a grab-Starbucks-browse-Barnes&Noble getaway from my children. An hour of drifting through the aisles, jotting titles to add to my Paperback Swap wishlist, sipping a hot espresso truffle – heaven.
St. Lucy’s was sitting face-out on the shelf, and for better or for worse, I am drawn to books that I judge by their covers. The paperback version features the illustration of a little girl in a white and red pinafore riding the back of a shaggy brown wolf. The girl’s pudgy pink hands pull at her short, unkempt hair. I knew how she felt.
The author of the collection of short stories is the rather beautiful wunderkind Karen Russell, who was 25 years old at the time of printing. I didn’t expect much, but having recently entered a short story contest, I realized how little I knew about crafting a short story. And how I really don't like short stories. With a penitent heart, I took the book home and began to read.
In the ten stories, Russell whisks us away to the darker side of the Florida Everglades and to the plains of the Old West and to an Eskimo ice cap. She lovingly presents characters grotesque and disturbing, who act in grotesque and disturbing ways. Families run theme parks for wrestling alligators or exploiting Giant Conch shells, brothers seek their sister’s ghost in underwater caves, orangutans perform at an ice rink, and, yes, wolf-like girls are reformed by nuns.
These stories may be surreal, but what’s far more astonishing is Russell’s magic with words. Russell unabashedly expects the best of the English language and refuses to settle for less. Her phrasing is orgasmic.
Now the thunder makes the thin window glass ripple like wax paper. Summer rain is still the most comforting sounds I know. I like to pretend that it’s our dead mother’s fingers, drumming on the ceiling above us.
I shadow the spirit manatees, their backs scored with keloid stars from motorboat propellers. I somersault through stingrays. Bonefish flicker around me like mute banshees.
Somewhere, an Avalanche is about to happen without us. Rangi must know this before I do, and the dead bear in eyes comes racing towards us across old snow.
And sometimes, if she sits long enough, it happens. Beneath the hum of her own blood, beneath the hum of the world itself, she thinks she can hear the faint strains of another song. It’s a red spark of sound, just enough to cast acoustic shadows of the older song that she has forgotten.
Words fail me to describe this book. I grasp at adjectives like “satisfying,” “complex,” “ bizarre.” Russell’s book is the reason the word “phantasmagorical” exists. I think about sucking your own blood from a paper cut or pouring salt on a slug. Reading St. Lucy’s is like drinking a glass of thick, perfectly aged red wine and being fully sated in both hunger and thirst.
This is a book writers should read, readers should read, adventurers should read. It’s not for the timid, but neither is it for the fearless. It’s for all of us who are in between, and up for the challenge.