Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell

This review by Jenny Shank was previously published in the Dallas News.

Karen Russell’s imagination is turbocharged, so amped that at age 31 she’s already publishing her third inventive book, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Her second story collection follows her rollicking 2011 novel Swamplandia!, about a family running an alligator-packed tourist attraction in the Everglades.

Swamplandia! was a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer Prize in fiction, infamously not awarded to any book. But there’s no need to cry for Russell. Judging from the skill and range she displays in these eight surprising stories, plenty of accolades await her.

Turning to each subsequent story in this collection feels like trading in a known quantity for whatever happens to be behind Curtain No. 3. Anything might happen — Presidents Eisenhower and Hayes might be reincarnated as horses, seagulls might alter the future or you could be in for a trip to a tailgating party in the Antarctic where you’ll be urged to root for perennial loser Team Krill over Yankees-like Team Whale (“It must be real tough, you cetaceous [expletives], to support the best team in the league”). In each story, Russell creates an entirely new world from scratch.

In the enchanting title story, Russell conjures a vampire named Clyde, whom most people mistake for “a small, kindly Italian grandfather.” He spends his days hanging out at Santa Francesca’s Lemon Grove in Italy, waiting for his wife, Magreb, to change back from a bat. “Human marriages amuse me,” he thinks, “the brevity of the commitment and all the ceremony that surrounds it.” After his “early years on the blood,” when Clyde met Magreb she convinced him that attacking people does nothing to relieve hunger. Still, these vampire vegetarians are left with an unquenchable thirst. For the moment, lemons offer some relief. The magic of this story is how Russell makes these undead vampires feel human.

Russell manages the same feat with monsters of her own invention in “Reeling for the Empire,” in which young women in Japan are signed up by a “Recruitment Agent” to work at a silk mill. He gives each woman a foul potion that gradually transforms her into a silkworm, her belly full of thread, compelled to spin silk for her captors in exchange for the mulberry leaves she now craves. This story, part horror, part fantasy, part literary fiction, reaches its climax when one cunning silkworm worker stages a thrilling insurrection.
Tales of deprivation, drought and hardship on the American frontier are often horrifying, but Russell pushes the pioneer narrative toward outright horror in the skillful “Proving Up,” set in the tallgrass prairie of Nebraska. It revolves around a fascinating detail: To earn the title to their land, each family must improve their acreage, including adding a glass window to their sod dugouts. Glass is an unaffordable luxury, so the community shares one window, delivered by horse to each family who needs it to show the inspector. The families in Russell’s story, however, face more than just the hardship of drought and cruel weather, and must contend with a malevolent figure.

In “The New Veterans,” a massage therapist working with an Iraq war veteran whose back is tattooed with the scene of his friend’s death finds she can manipulate the images in the tattoo and draw some of the soldier’s memories and mental anguish into herself.

The voice of the narrator in “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” doesn’t seem as though it belongs to a tough 14-year-old New Jersey boy named Larry Rubio — it sounds more like that of a brainy, award-winning novelist. But the other voices in the collection are so varied and convincing that it’s easy to forgive one slip.
Russell’s fantasies are compelling because they enhance reality — highlighting the deprivations caused by poverty, war or just being different — through her extraordinary metaphors. Although Russell digs deep into serious themes, her keen humor, joy and wonder remain in the foreground so that while the stories have a moral core, it’s secondary to sheer entertainment.

Jenny Shank’s first novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Karen Russell
(Knopf, $24.95)

1 comment:

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