Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 243 pp)

Karen Russell is an American novelist. Her debut novel, Swamplandia!, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. No prize for fiction was awarded that year. 

Please, No More Vampires!

Against my better judgement, I bought this book. It was recommended by one of my favorite new authors, Karen Thompson Walker, author of the widely acclaimed Age of Miracles. Because I too loved Karen Thompson Walker’s work, I thought her recommendation of her former classmate from Columbia was worthwhile. Luckily for me, the short story collection contains no sparkly vampires infatuated with each other while wallowing in teen angst. But, in all honesty, not all stories in the collection are worthwhile.

The worst of the bunch may very well be the title story. Fraught with many a cliché, the title story has such cheese-covered gems as the following segment:

“I have an old nonno’s coloring, the dark walnut stain peculiar to southern Italians, a tan that won’t fade until I die (which I never will)…” (1).

But, There’s Good News

No book is without it’s flaws because writers are fallible. Russell has her moments of great reach (i.e. the first story), but sometimes the reach comes with great success. My favorite of her collection of other-worldly stories is the second, wherein some patriotic Japanese girls are tricked into drinking some suspicious tea. The tea transforms them.

“I’ll put it bluntly: we are all becoming reelers. Some kind of hybrid creature, part kaiko, silkworm caterpillar, and part human female. Some of the older workers’ faces are already quite covered with a coarse white fur, but my face and thighs stayed smooth for twenty days. In fact, I’ve only just begun to grow the white hair on my belly” (24).

In a Kafka-esque fashion, Russel’s imagination is able to induce both horror and awe. Now forced to work in a factory as half-girl half-worm, the girls create horror abounding, and even transform others in order to welcome them into the hell in which they live.

“The last thing I see before shutting his eyes, is the reflection of my shining new face” (52).

A Prairie Home Companion

Russell’s “Proving Up” is also a noteworthy read, and a nod to the prairie tails of old (think Willa Cather). In the story, in order to own land under the Homestead Act, it is necessary to own a window for each sod building. An inspector comes around town to assure that each building is in compliance, but he seems more like the big-brother phenomena from Orwell’s 1984. To avoid a lack of compliance, and punishment from the dreaded Inspector, the town shares a window among their sod dwellings.

“‘See if your mother’s got the Window ready. The inspector is coming tonight. He’s already on the train, can you imagine!'” (83).

A nameless boy is tasked by the town to deliver the pane from home to home in order that The Inspector doesn’t find out the inadequacies of the window furnishings in the town. The boy encounters a frontiersman along the way, who most likely is a ghost.

Ultimately, short stories rarely provide the same well-rounded and complete narrative that longer novels do. However, Russel crafts her stories so perfectly that within sentences the reader is engrossed. Vivid story after vivid story brightens the pages of the book, with extreme whimsy and creativity fluttering within. Russell, in her last book, Swamplandia!was praised for being far too naïve for her years, and this childlike charm is what she brings to her newest collection of short stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove. While I enjoy her stories, I can honestly say that her best stories are probably in front of her, which scares me, because these stories are some of the most entertaining I’ve found.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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