Karen Russell is one of the most exciting authors currently working. Her appeal comes from both her beatific writing and her extraordinary imagination. Considering she has only authored one novel and another short story collection, her work is something to look forward to. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a welcome return to short fiction by the powerhouse of the bizarre and surreal.
As with any collections of short stories, there are some misses, but thankfully there are only a couple here. In fact, they’re not bad stories, they just don’t hold up next to the others. For example, the titular story is well written and contains a unique idea that pulls a reader in, but compared to say ‘The New Veterans’ it loses power. The idea of vampires living out their days in Italy and sucking the juice from lemons rather than the blood of people is witty and appealing – particularly in our current phase of vampire fiction. However, with ‘The New Veterans’ Russell tackles something as poignant as the war in the middle east and adds her flair.
This was easily my favourite story in the collection. A soldier returns home from war and is recommended for deep tissue massage to help with his post traumatic stress. When he lays on the massage table he reveals a tattoo that covers his back and captures a scene from his time in the war. It all sounds rather mundane until the massage therapist begins to work and she interacts with the tattoo on a different level. She finds she can move the position of the sun which changes the soldiers mood, or she can push his fears away by manipulating other aspects of his artwork. Suddenly the story transforms into something infinitely magical while also bringing many emotions off of the page.
While not as sombre, ‘The Barn at the End of Our Term’ is another story that shines for its absurdities. Here the reader meets a stable full of horses which wouldn’t be unusual until we discover that the horses are long dead American presidents reincarnated. They still hold their grudges and they still want the power, but Russell spins it in such a way as to keep you laughing while genuinely pondering death and what lies beyond.
The third story in the collection was the biggest miss for me. The idea of seagulls bringing pieces of the future into the past on a beach is quirky but loses meaning as the story progresses. Whereas ‘Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating’ takes something equally ludicrous and makes you wonder why it has never been written before. The idea of people travelling to the Antarctic to support either the whales or the krill in the annual feasting is intriguing before you even read the first word. I’m Team Krill ’til I die, by the way.
I’ve read this collection over the last month and I suppose the test of time is perhaps a good indication of the quality of the fiction. The better stories are still lodged in my brain today and they are as vivid as the day I read them. Particularly the women who are turned into silkworms.
As I’ve mentioned, the collection is funny and also surreal. There is a bounty of magical realism to behold, but Russell also steps into the realms of fear, as seen in the closing story, which truly set me on edge. It’s clear to see why Karen Russell has such a following. Her ideas and prose are astonishing and the odd damp squib of a story can be expected. They don’t really matter in the context of the book, the brilliance completely outweighs the not so.
Published by Chatto & Windus. This book was kindly sent for review by the publisher.