CBR5 Review #26: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

Why I Read It: Because Russell is amazing. Swamplandia!, which I read last year, was excellent, and I’ve read multiple short stories by her in various collections that I really enjoyed.

My Rating: 3 stars

Summary: With her characteristic satirical eye and witty voice, Russell takes on the weird, the otherworldly, and the dystopian over the course of ten twisted pseudo-fairy tales. Some of the standouts include the title story, which is about exactly what it sounds like, and “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” on which Swamplandiais based.

My Review: I had mixed feelings about this collection, unfortunately. Usually I stay away from “weird” fiction–I’m a bit more traditional in my literary tastes, and have a hard time staying engaged when reading experimental writing. I can handle the sort of weirdness that Russell excels at in small doses, but ten stories worth was a little overwhelming. I think I would have enjoyed this collection much more if I’d read it incrementally, purposely spacing out my reading of the stories to better understand/absorb them.

One of the reasons I loved Swamplandia! so much is that Russell grounded the story in a very vivid world and featured an incredibly powerful main character who I couldn’t help but fall in love with. The world and the plot might have been bizarre and off-kilter, but Ava was real and strong and endearing and that helped balance out the more out-there aspects of the novel. That emotional root was missing for me in a lot of the short stories featured in this collection, which was especially problematic in the character-driven ones (no surprise that my two favorites were a) the one I already had a connection to and b) one that didn’t feature a central character). Because I’m not someone who inherently enjoys these kinds of stories, I need something else to draw me in, and I felt that that “something” was missing.

I also felt like the stories ended too abruptly, and I wasn’t really satisfied with any of their endings. Russell’s style seems to be to cut things off mid-action, to leave the reader with a sense of confusion/ambiguity, which can work in some scenarios but really bothered me when it happened in virtually every story. These felt more like clips from larger works rather than full-formed pieces in their own right.

There were absolutely positives to this reading experience, though. Russell has an incredibly fresh and interesting voice that remains consistent over the course of all ten stories. She’s smart and witty and satirical–the closest literary comparison I can make is George Saunders, but Russell absolutely has her own vision. I appreciated the cohesiveness of the collection in that regard, and the stories include some seriously funny moments. Her blending of humor with trauma and the supernatural is really creative and captivating, and some of the ideas behind her stories are so weird it’s hard to think of how she came up with them (for example, one is about the Oregon Trail-like journey of the family of a minotaur). That creativity is pretty stunning, and I think this collection demonstrates how much promise Russell has as a young writer. And again, she clearly refined and learned how to balance out her out-there ideas in Swamplandia!, so I really look forward to reading more of her work as she continues to mature in her writing.

Should You Read It? It’s definitely worth picking up, if only for the two stories I noted above. And if you’re someone who loves dystopian/experimental fiction, this is definitely the collection for you.

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