Caren Gussoff Sumption Reviews The Girl Who Outgrew the World by Zoje Stage

The Girl Who Outgrew the World, Zoje Stage (Lethe 978-1-59021-523-4, $15.00, 180pp, tp) May 2022.

Eleven-year-old Lilly is having a growth spurt. Only this is no ordinary, normal march towards adolescence. In Zoje Stage’s new novella, The Girl Who Outgrew the World, the title itself reveals the scale and pace of Lilly’s development, a mysterious, monstrous, and inexplicable surge that baffles and frightens her father, her friends, her town, and all the specialty physicians brought in to diagnose the source of her sudden, unstoppable growth.

Aside from Lilly’s seemingly-magical increase in size, the world Stage builds seems, initially, familiar. James, Lilly’s father, is a single dad doing the best that he can raising his daughter and working in IT. Lilly attends school with her best friend, Rain, and the girls take turns hanging out at one another’s houses afterward, eating snacks, playing games, and testing out their proto-teenage gossip skills. But, quickly, we’re provided small details that assure us that this world is not our world – birds speak, for instance (and not just the parakeets and cockatoos we know, but wild birds, flying around), and fairy tale worlds are thought to actually exist (though not nearby). In this, Stage deftly moves the book from the magical realism we expect on page one into the uncanny slipstream universe. If you enjoy Karen Russell and Kelly Link, Stage’s world will hold great appeal.

Lilly’s growth quickly becomes… problematic. Not just for practical reasons, though we are shown those: a seamstress is brought in to tailor the girl a wardrobe; special tables and chairs are procured for Lilly at school; and paparazzi stalk Lilly for sensationalist photos. The emergent issue is that James has begun to fear Lilly, and, while he harbors some guilt and shame over fearing his own daughter, he is enthusiastically in favor of handing Lilly over to the doctors who want to hospitalize her and subject her to risky, experimental radiation treatments to arrest her growth. Even though these treatments are unproven and, the doctors warn, could harm Lilly’s brain, James is willing to subject his daughter to any side effects in hope of returning her to “normal.”

Herein is the rub. Lilly, of course, overhears the risks and is heartbroken by her father’s betrayal. She decides to run away, to find the “village of wrong things,” a place where everything and everyone broken and imperfect is welcomed. Though the village exists only in stories, Lilly has no doubt of its existence and that there she will be “normal.” However, Stage counts on us, as readers, to understand that there is no such thing as normal – not here, not in folklore – especially when it comes to the bodies of girls and women. Lilly is eleven; she is, magical growth spurt or not, on the cusp of puberty. Puberty is never dealt evenly and fairly across age and gender, in this world or any other – some develop early, some bloom late. We all get there, but on our own timelines. Lilly’s growth has not only increased her height and girth. She has developed breasts as well, so she is privy now to two flavors of gaze – the gaze that she is a “freak” and a new, sexualized gaze – and, due to her father’s fears, she winds up with no guidance on how to handle either.

Lilly may be in danger of outgrowing the world, but she is also in danger from the world. On her own, she understands just about as much as any eleven year old would. She initially trusts one of the doctors who studied her, and accepts shelter from him. But he sexually assaults her. She escapes, after killing him, and does finally find true assistance, in the form of a strange logger named Angus who agrees to drive Lilly to “TownTown,” the residence of a group of women who, he says, are the ones that can really help Lilly. The women – crones, warriors, priestesses – do, indeed, bring Lilly to the place, or rather, to become the place that she was born to be.

It is a bit jarring to move so quickly from rape to magic in the plot. The book is a novella, and a tightly plotted one, with a lot that needs to happen to deliver Lilly into the care of the magical women who will help her find her true place. And Lilly is young – precociously intelligent, but young – and so she does not have a lot of the skills or emotional development for her to process the assault. But we do. The Girl Who Outgrew the World, though it has young narrators and concerns a young adult, is not a YA book. Therefore, though the ending winds up as both beautiful and melancholy, the fact that the assault – in fact, all Lilly’s sexualization – goes unprocessed means that the story ultimately feels unresolved.

Caren Gussoff Sumption is a writer, editor, Tarot reader, and reseller living outside Seattle, WA with her husband, the artist and data scientist, Chris Sumption, and their ridiculously spoiled cat-children.

Born in New York, she attended the University of Colorado, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Clarion West (as the Carl Brandon Society’s Octavia Butler scholar) and the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. Caren is also a Hedgebrook alum (2010, 2016). She started writing fiction and teaching professionally in 2000, with the publication of her first novel, Homecoming.

Caren is a big, fat feminist killjoy of Jewish and Romany heritages. She loves serial commas, quadruple espressos, knitting, the new golden age of television, and over-analyzing things. Her turn offs include ear infections, black mold, and raisins in oatmeal cookies.

This review and more like it in the July 2022 issue of Locus.

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