12 of 15
Karen Russell was a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her novel Swamplandia!

Carson McCullers may seem an unusual choice for an undersung author—her 1940 debut novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, was a best-seller, and Tennessee Williams hailed her as "the greatest prose writer that the South produced." But I called myself a McCullers fan for years without ever having heard of her Reflections in a Golden Eye. It's her sophomore work, slender but with the concussive force of a Greek tragedy. It includes a young soldier's nude horseback ride in the woods and ends with a murder. There are many species of outlandish cruelty, spooky voyeurism, several demented love affairs, a horrific scene with pruning shears. Yet McCullers's skill at rendering her characters' terrible loneliness, and the wingbeats of their trapped desires, makes the book's chilling climax feel not only plausible but inevitable.

Like Virginia Woolf in The Waves, McCullers moves fluidly among the minds of her characters, creating a dazzling chorus of six overlapping consciousnesses (seven, if you count the horse). Part of the sly joke of this book is its setting: a Georgia army post "in peacetime." McCullers shows us just how elusive peace is when you have a cast of misfits and love-starved loners strapped into the wrong relationships. These men and women are round pegs in square holes, shipwrecked in their marriages or marooned in careers that offer no outlet for their true natures; they will be immediately recognizable to those of us who sometimes feel claustrophobic inside this finite life. The turbulence the book describes reads as an uncanny valentine to anybody who has ever been stunned by the hammer in the face of arbitrary fortune, or simply sort of lonely on a Tuesday. Which is surely all of us!

Karen Russell's most recent book is story collection the Vampires in the Lemon Grove.