Karen Russell, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (Knopf, 2006)
I was reading along in Karen Russell's debut volume of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and I was pretty sure it was going to get an excellent review. I figured it would flirt with inclusion in my Best Reads of 2007 list. Then I read "Out to Sea." Not only is this book a shoo-in for the Best List-- a pretty amazing feat for a book I read in the first two weeks of the year-- but I'm reasonably confident in saying it's got a shot at the overall title, and I can say with great confidence that Karen Russell made a devoted lifelong fan with that story, a masterpiece of emotional wordplay and controlled eroticism. (The story that follows it, "Accident Brief, #00/422," takes the exact opposite tack to the same basic destination, giving us a laugh-out-loud funny narrator who injects moments of such hopeless despair that the reader will find himself stopping laughing, instantly and uncomfortably, on an alarmingly regular basis.) Ben Marcus, in one of the blurbs on the back cover, says "This book is a miracle.", and I am inclined to agree with him.
It would be easy, if a touch simplistic, to pigeonhole Russell's stories in the magical realism genre. All the hallmarks are there-- normal (well, kind of) people, real (or at least plausible) places, supernatural (or are they, really?) events. So, yeah. Lots of qualifiers there. Borges/Marquez/Murakami/Hoffman/et al. would recognize Russell on sight, but less as a daughter than as a second cousin once removed. The same could be said of any genre where one might fit Russell's work; it seems to be a new beast all its own.
Genre, however, is not as important as skill, and Russell is an immensely skilled writer. It's a good thing to be able to write solid characters and put them into interesting situations. If you can do that, in general, you've got yourself a workable book. After that, everything else is what separates the good from the great: the eye for minuscule detail, the ability to recognize that one turn of phrase will ring marginally better than another against the resonance of the rest of the story's language, a talent for developing one's characters in surprising, yet plausible (within the framework of the story, anyway) ways. When you're reading a Karen Russell story, it becomes very quickly obvious that you're in the hands of a master. If you have not yet picked this up, do so at your earliest convenience; it is that rarest of beasts, a book that actually lives up to all the pre-publication buzz. *****