St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
The title story of Russell’s heralded debut collection concerns, not surprisingly, a group of girls who have been raised by wolves but are now under the care of a nunnery. Another takes place at a sleepaway camp for kids who can’t sleep without walking, talking or—in the case of the narrator—suffering nightmares that remember past, historic global tragedies (the Hindenburg, the Trail of Tears). And “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” finds the narrator alone with her demon-possessed sister in Swamplandia!, the alligator theme park run by their family.
All of this is to say that Russell has a fondness for putting her characters in absurd, almost otherworldly settings. She’s plucking from George Saunders’s bag of tricks here: Swamplandia! is an obvious echo of the latter’s 1996 theme park–themed story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. And Russell shares Saunders’s knack for invention; her characters are often funny and the worlds she creates are fully realized.
Unfortunately, Russell is content to make her worlds smoke screens for the stories, obscuring truth in her characters. What makes Saunders so compelling is that within his bizarro universes live real characters. But nearly all of Russell’s are preteens with M.F.A. vocabularies, who have no trouble pronouncing “deep” truths about the world. In “Ava,” the protagonist has to keep track of her sister while her dad is away during the offseason. When her sis runs off into the woods to be with her demon lover, Ava chases her, full tilt. “But this burst of speed comes from an older adrenaline, some limbic other,” the pubescent narrator says.
The problem here is not simply one of word choice, but the lack of a true voice. The stories all feel like they were run through a “writerly” filter, and what’s left behind in the sieve is an honest exploration of the characters. Russell has plenty of talent. We hope she puts it to better use in her next book.—Jonathan Messinger