Last July, I was in something of a literary rut. I couldn’t seem to find the right book to hold my interest so I phoned a friend who runs a popular book blog for some recommendations to help me out of my dry spell. She rattled off a few titles and I burst out laughing when she suggested a short story collection entitled ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’, by Karen Russell.
‘What is that about?’ I asked her.
‘I have no idea,’ she said, ‘but it’s getting great reviews. You should check it out.’
Thus, my love affair with the weird and wondrous stories of Karen Russell began.
‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ is everything that the title promises. It is intriguing, startling, and completely original. Russell seamlessly blends elements of psychological realism with the grotesque, the gothic, and the magical. Although Russell’s content is comparable to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Angela Carter, and other writers of magical realism, it is difficult to classify her writing within one particular genre or style. She gracefully shifts from lyrical imagery to dry humor, and infuses historical settings with suspense and horror. What I appreciated most about this collection, however, was that although Russell’s settings are often fantastical, her stories are never outlandish, but always intimate, relatable, and delicately told.
Take, for instance, the title story, about two aging vampires living on a lemon grove in Italy, who have given up blood and are satiating their cravings by sucking on lemons. This absurd, even comical, tale about two monsters spirals into meditations on human love, addiction and fidelity. The narrator, himself a vampire, muses on human marriage: ‘These mortal couples need only keep each other in sight for fifty, sixty years. Often I wonder to what extent a mortal’s love grows from the bedrock of his or her foreknowledge of death, love like a green stem that grows out of that blankness in a way that I’ll never quite understand.’
Russell’s imaginative vision spans continents and centuries and some of my favorite stories in the collection are ones that make use of historical settings. One story, set in Imperial Japan, entitled, ‘Reeling for the Empire’, is about Japanese girls held captive in a silk factory who are slowly transformed into silkworms themselves and lead a revolution against their captors. Another tale grounded in history is ‘Proving Up’, a bleak and horrifying parable about America’s westward expansion and the terrible cost of human hunger for acquisition. When I read the last line of ‘Proving Up’, my jaw fell open. I am still haunted by the images and the ideas in that marvelous story.
Although Russell is a relative newcomer on the literary scene, she has already made quite an impact with her exuberant, original voice. Michiko Kakutani, of the New York Times, writes that Russell’s ‘narratives possess both the resonance of myth and the immediacy of something new.’ Her first novel, Swamplandia!, published in 2011, is about a young girl whose family runs an amusement park in the Everglades and it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I was thrilled to discover that Karen Russell is a young writer, it means that we have decades more magic to look forward to.
Photo credit: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, published by Alfred A. Knopf