Karen Russell was just 25 when this collection came out; a fact that is plastered all over the cover, festooned in blurbs throughout the opening pages, and the header on almost every piece of criticism that was launched at the same time as this collection. Her youth is/was impressive, and most certainly made me look back at my 25-year-old self with pity, but her youth is not the spark that sets this fire. She may have been young, but her ability to give voice to much younger characters is what sets her apart from the rest.
Her narrators are mostly young; many are “tweens” or slightly older; everyone is on the cusp of adulthood, weather they are again biologically or aging through attacks of tragedy from the adult world. These narrators are so new; young and ready to be ripped to shred by the world at large. A good deal of these tales involve girls gone astray: some have wandered off, some have been lured, some didn’t know they were leaving, and some will never be found.
“What bird are you calling?’ I ask, finally, when I can’t stand it any longer. The bird man stops whistling. He grins, so that I can see all his pebbly teeth. He holds out a hand to me over the broth-thin water. ‘You.”
This book holds a secret language. Not just the ones presented within: a chorus of howls for wolf-girls, a series of whistles to pipe birds to your will, ancient whirls of wind trumpeting through giant conch shells- but the pre-verbal language that we all have deep in our animal brains. The language that we lose a hold of as we age. It’s the language that courses through our blood when we start to grow up it sinks back into the primordial swamps from which it came.
Russell paints a gorgeous and murky landscape of swampland, tourist traps, and coastal living. You can smell these stories. You can see the ghosts before your very eyes.
“On the fifth night of our search, I see a plesiosaur. It is a megawatt behemoth, bronze and blue-white, streaking across the sea floor like a torpid comet. Watching it, I get this primordial deja vu, like I’m watching a dream return to my body. It wings towards me with a slow, avian grace. Its long neck is arced in an S-shaped curve; its lizard body is the size of Granana’s carport. Each of its ghost flippers pinwheels colored light. I try to swim out of its path, but the thing’s too big to avoid. That Leviathan fin, it shivers right through me. It’s a light in my belly, cold and familiar. And I flash back to a snippet from school, a line from a poem or a science book, I can’t remember which: ‘There are certain prehistoric things that swim beyond extinction’.”
I came to this collection as I do most things: late and out of order. I first read Swamplandia! back when it was released, and I wish that I had picked up this collection first. The opening story is the kernel that grew into that novel, and truthfully I prefer the story. Her pieces always feel slightly unfinished, but in a way that leaves you aching with imagination.