Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Some book reviews! Really! - The Limits of Enchantment, and St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves - Karen Russell

I had been hearing about this book here and there, and finally picked it up over a year ago.  When Stephen King said that Swamplandia!, Russell's new book, was one of the anticipated books of the year, I thought I'd better go back and read her first book.  I also love the title.  I love wolves, and it's an irresistible title.
St Lucy's Home For Girls Raised by Wolves is a book of short stories, and they are fantasy in the way that is fabulous,  in the old original sense of fabulous being strange and wild and wonderful.  Almost all the stories are set in Florida, in and around the water or the forest or the swamp. The two that are not, From Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration, and Accident Brief, Occurrence # 00/422, are set in the prairies/desert (Children's Reminiscences) and the Arctic somewhere (Accident Brief).  All the stories feature young people, usually around 8 or 10 or 12, who are on the cusp of reaching for the adult world, not quite knowing what they are missing, but they are missing it, even as they explore childhood and the darkness around them.  Almost every story features loss, absent parents, mothers who abandon their children to make a living in the way that the very poor do.  These aren't pretty people, neither are they terrifically bad - they are children and the freaky adults they find themselves surrounded with.  If I had to describe the theme of this book, it would be what life would be like if it were a circus - that extraordinarily twilight zone feeling that we get going to the circus, where certainly I want to laugh at the clowns, but at the same time I'm aware there are people underneath and are they happy?  do they want to be laughed at?  (of course they do, but I always worry about what people are really feeling, and not what they are pretending to the world.)This collection of stories is like looking through a fun house mirror, where the carnival aspects of childhood get twisted in ways we know are, even though they shouldn't be.  They are gothic without any of the nonsense about death - surreal stories, almost.  And fascinating.  I really enjoyed this collection.

I love Russells' flights of fancy, her awareness of nature and the children being the ones taking the time to see the stars and trees and being intimately connected with life around them, before adulthood comes to sweep them away.  There are ghosts and convicts and dream camps (I wish I could go to that one!), a  minotaur as a father, and gator-wrestling Ava Wrestles the Alligator, which the new book Swamplandia! is set in the same swampland attraction as the short story is.  One of my favourite quotes is on my sidebar;   "Haunting Olivia" is one of my favourite stories in this collection.  It's told by the older brother who searches endlessly for her in the ocean, hoping to find her ghost among the ghosts of all the other creatures that died, but even when she seemingly contacts him, he still can't find her.  That sense of loss, of searching for something gone, permeates all the stories in this book.  Olivia was sliding down the sand on the back of a very huge crab sled and slid out into the waves, but the tide was going out and the boys didn't wait around to see her come back in.  Just like in real life, tragedy and loss, big changes and small.  "St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" is about werewolves who are taken by nuns to be raised to be like humans.  It's very good, especially as the girls learn how to not think like pack, and how they lose their sense of connectedness when they do that.  Who says being human is the highest realization?  Only humans do.  These stories are weird and wonderful, like the old time circuses and men calling, "Step right up!  See the Bearded woman! One night only!"  Like Ray Bradbury if he had grown up in Florida,  there is a sense of him in her writing.  I highly recommend this book. 4.5/5

The Limits of Enchantment - Graham Joyce

I love this novel.  It's the story of Fern Cullen, a young woman who lives with her mother in a small village in 1966 England.  Mammy Cullen is a midwife, but not of the new school of hospital approved midwives.  She is old-school.  She knows the herbs and small magics that midwives traditionally know since women began having babies and needed help giving birth.  She might be a witch, she might not.  And Fern is on the cusp of asking what she wants to do with her life.  Then Mammy is roughed up by some men - really, just knocked over roughly - and she gets weaker and ends up in the hospital.  Fern has to contend with a group of hippies who move into the neighborhood, the advances of Arthur, and deciding if she wants to carry on her mother's work.  She has the gift, but before she does more than take a few steps for the future, the local gentry who own the land decide she must move out because they are in arrears.  And The Limits of Enchantment is about how Fern discovers who are her friends, and who isn't, and how she learns to ask and to listen and to judge on her own.

The Limits of Enchantment is written from Fern's point of view.  She is engaging and frank, seeing through most people around her.  But she is young, and she has to learn that she can't practice her midwifery without the support of the community around her, and when they initially don't respond to her requests for help, she faces being forced to leave.  How she fights back and how the community rallies around her, is particularly funny and tender. 


This is a really enjoyable book. Fern is a strong character as is Mammy.  All the characters are interesting and idiosyncratic - they are really vividly drawn.  I liked the setting - 1966, a small village, and I especially liked the midwife and magical aspects of the story.  I highly recommend this book, especially to anyone interested in folklore and herbal lore, and changing society.  5/5

14 comments:

Care said...

OH! it has been forever since I thought of the Home for Girls Raised by Wolves book! delightful, yes? and abrupt, I thought but still quite delicious.

Gavin said...

So glad you like "St. Lucy's"! At the moment I am reading "Swamplandia!" and finding it mucky and rich and I will add "The Limit's of Enchantment" to my TBR list.

Susan said...

Care: Yes, exactly - delightful, and very short storyish - sometimes they did end abruptly. Did you review it? I'll link to it if you did. I'll come see.

Gavin: I know, I'm very curious about Swamplandia! I like how you put it is mucky and rich, because the short story certainly is too.

Cath said...

I completely missed this post and I'm not sure how as I check my 'follow' list religiously. Anyway, the wolves book I've had my radar for a few years now and was wondering what it was really like. Thanks for your great review, have added it to my 'look for at the library' list.

Lesley said...

I've thought about reading St. Lucy's since it first came out but I just never seem to be in the mood for short story collections.

But glad to hear you enjoyed the Joyce book! I've really liked all the things he's written. If you haven't read The Tooth Fairy, I recommend it for a scary coming-of-age story.

Susan said...

Cath: That's ok, my friend! I don't always see every post and then have to backtrack too. I'm happy I could point you to a interesting collection of stories to read (or help you remember you wanted to) :-)

Lesley: I really enjoyed his Facts of Life, and I am so delighted I enjoyed The Limits of Enchantment so much. I haven't read Tooth Fairy yet, I think I've been afraid to!

It was really the cover of St Lucy's Home For Girls that kept pulling me in. I find it irresistible. :-D

Amy said...

Susan--I posted the SWAMPLANDIA review. I really liked it!

How are you liking FRINGE this season? I love that show.

-Amy
LIFE BY CANDLELIGHT

Susan said...

Amy: You have to read my post below this one, for my Fringe thoughts - I am really enjoying it. I especially liked seeing the other universe, and this last episode with young Peter and olivia - very good episode. I'll come see your Swamplandia review, thanks for letting me know :-)

Carl V. said...

One of the many books I am reading right now is Karen Russell's debut novel, Swamplandia. I am really digging it thus far and if it keeps up like this I'll certainly want to find this collection and read it.

Susan said...

Carl: My birthday is approaching and I am debating putting Swamplandia! on the list. Amy (books by candlelight) loved it. I am looking forward to your review, and Gavin's. If it's as good as the short story is, then I will have to get it! lol

Carl V. said...

From what little I've read (a couple of chapters), I would recommend it highly. Great idea for your birthday, and Happy (early) Birthday!!!

Susan said...

Carl: My birthday is in May. I am busy building a list for my husband, of which I think Swamplandia! might be on it, and Jo Walton's new one will be on it! lol Certainly Ava Wrestles the Alligator is resting in my mind, the swampiness etched there now, so I know I will read Swamplandia sooner or later. I love it when the atmosphere of a book becomes meaningful like that.

Carl V. said...

Cool, that gives you a long time still to build that list!!!

Susan said...

Carl: you are so right, and you have no idea how much my husband dreads all the books on it!! lol