The young characters in Karen Russell’s debut collection of short stories inhabit a rich and strange fictional landscape. They navigate the perennial sea changes of growing up — shifting alliances, emerging sexuality, and a growing awareness of death — but they do so in a creatively imagined world that’s like a shimmering reflection of our own. A girl coping with her love for her delusional sister wrestles alligators; two brothers haunted by their sister’s drowning find swim goggles that let them see ghosts; an adolescent social outcast enwombs herself in a giant conch; and, in the title story — the collection’s deftest — a pack of girls approaching womanhood must reject the werewolf ways of their parents in favor of the human habits advocated by nuns.
Like the brilliant George Saunders, Russell uses non-realist situations to pursue a realist goal: illumining the human heart. Both writers paint unreal worlds whose emotional truth makes them plausible, but whereas Saunders delves into the lives and concerns of adults, Russell’s focus is young people: schoolkids, summer campers, teenagers on the brink of what comes next. And her imaginative situations explore not only human relations, but those between people and animals, the made world and the natural one. The young people here are not yet entirely human — they can slip into shells, run with the wolves, feel their secret horns, and go to sea in giant crab carapaces. To be a child, these stories imply, is to be freer of the restraints of human culture, more in touch with the nonhuman world. In one story, two baffled kids spy on adults trying to recapture youth’s freedom with an artificial blizzard. In another, a young stargazer throws his pocket planisphere into the ocean to hide it from an older, tougher boy, a small but earthshaking betrayal of his stargazing family. Inevitably we put away childish things, Russell suggests with Wordsworthian succinctness, but when we do, we begin to lose our location in the universe.
Like the underwater worlds that haunt her pages, Russell’s stories fascinate us with a strangeness that feels more familiar with every moment we spend submerged, until we swim in it as readily as we walk on land.