Review by Jaime R. Herndon
For such a young writer, Karen Russell has shown imagination and a freshness of writing that separates her from her peers. Since receiving her MFA in fiction from Columbia, Russell received the “5 Under 35” award in 2009 from the National Book Foundation, was named on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list, and was a Pulitzer Prize fiction finalist for her novel Swamplandia!, alongside David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson. Her newest book, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, is a book of short stories set in a variety of locales that was published by Knopf in February. Full disclosure: Swamplandia! was not my favorite. The novel’s characters and plot had Russell’s distinctive magical realism, but the fantasy became tedious at a point, stretching the reader too far, which does not happen at all in her shorter works. Russell really shines in her short stories. In the stories, her lyrical imagination is showcased in beautiful ways that let you lose yourself in the words. No matter how inventive the story, it surprisingly easy to suspend disbelief because of Russell’s craft in these short spaces.
In the title story, two vampires who have been together for hundreds of years suddenly face a problem when one of them develops a fear of flying. The relationship between the two vampires and the way they interact in the world is intricately described, with lines like “…You small mortals don’t realize the power of your stories.” A disturbing piece entitled “Reeling for the Empire” weaves the story of women transformed into silkworms and held captive in a factory, who discover personal agency and the power of their relationships in their attempts to transform and free themselves. As the main character Kitsune says, “…In truth there is no model for what will happen to us next. We’ll have to wait and learn what we’ve become when we get out.”
Perhaps the most haunting tale in Russell’s collection is “The New Veterans,” a story about a tattooed war veteran visiting a massage therapist. As the two work together, the therapist begins to realize the tattoos come to life on the Vet’s body, and are malleable under her hands. Questions of healing, hurt, memory and honor are all explored in this love story of a different sort.
The approaches of these eight stories are so different from each other and have such lives of their own that this is a book that almost defies description, in the best way possible. Who else could tell a story about a massage therapist working on a war veteran whose tattoos come alive and change the lives of those involved, or make your heart hurt for a vampire? The way Russell can manipulate fantastical images and make them almost mundane is a gift, and one that makes you carry the characters around in your head, long after you’ve turned the last page.
Jaime R. Herndon is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia University.