God damn it, Karen Russell.
She’s just too good at this, guys, and it’s driving me crazy. No one should be able to do what Karen Russell does – her particular brand of magical realism, where the supernatural and suburban America blend seamlessly, is like nothing I’ve ever encountered before. It just isn’t fair that all that talent got concentrated in one person.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove is Russell’s second collection of short stories – in my review of her first book, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, I complained that most of the stories didn’t have concrete endings, and often stopped right when they were starting to get good. The writing was gorgeous, the settings and characters were fantastic, but the lack of closure to the stories irritated me. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is infinitely more satisfying, with each of the stories having a much clearer beginning, middle, and end. It’s still Karen Russell, of course, so the stories do tend to stop sooner than you want them to, and you sometimes get the sense that Russell doesn’t know how to resolve the scenario she’s set up, so she opts to leave the ending open for interpretation to avoid having to give us concrete answers. Reviewers who complain about the stories’ resolutions have clearly not read St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Compared to that, all of the stories presented here are much more organized and complete, and knowing that Russell had improved made this much more enjoyable to read.
And god, guys, the stories are so good. There are eight in all, and the only clunker is “The New Veterans,” which attempts to address the Iraq war and PTSD, and ends on a sort of treacly note. But it involves a massage therapist figuring out that she can manipulate a soldier’s memories through his tattoos, so it was still pretty cool. I had three favorite stories, and they all illustrate what’s so great about Russell’s writing: in “Reeling for the Empire,” girls who are recruited to work in silk factories during the industrialization of Japan are given tea that turns them into silkworm-human hybrids, and they spin silk in their stomachs that’s extracted from their fingertips by a machine every day. “Proving Up” is about a group of pioneer families struggling to survive while being shadowed by an unknown evil. And my absolute favorite, “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” is about a stable where the horses are former US presidents who have died and been transformed into horses, with all their memories of their former lives (our narrator is Rutherford B. Hayes), and it’s funny until it takes a hard left turn into Emotionally Devastating Lane and stays there, and suddenly you’re wondering why a story about horse presidents is making you want to cry. Such is the power of Karen Russell.
“Several of us claim to be daughters of samurai, but of course there is no way for anyone to verify that now. It’s a relief, in a way, this new anonymity. We come here tall and thin, noblewomen from Yamaguchi, graceful as calligraphy; short and poor, Hida girls with bloody feet, crow-voiced and vulgar; entrusted to the Model Mill by our teary mothers; rented out by our destitute uncles – but within a day or two the drink the Recruitment Agent gave us begins to take effect. And the more our kaiko-bodies begin to resemble one another, the more frantically each factory girl works to reinvent her past. One of the consequences of our captivity here in Nowhere Mill, and of the darkness that pools on the factory floor, and of the polar fur that covers our faces, blanking us all into sisters, is that anybody can be anyone she likes in the past.”