Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a collection of short stories written by Karen Russell. Russell, for her young age, is a very accomplished writer. In 2012 she won the National Magazine Award for fiction, and her debut novel, Swamplandia!, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Knowing that Russell is so accomplished caused me to have extremely high expectations, and as I traveled through this collection I was very rarely let down.
Reading short stories is different from most other reading experiences. The content is short, so there is a sense of urgency in nearly every word. “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” is the tale that Russell leads with, and I was immediately captivated by a kindly old vampire who can only sate his thirst for human blood with a juicy lemon. The bulk of the title story is rather flat, meaning not a lot is happening; however, Karen’s ability to describe the scene without becoming boring keeps the reader very well engaged. It’s not until the last tenth of the story that you realize that this may not be a happily ever after.
“Reeling for the Empire” is my favorite in this collection, because there are so many different threads (pun intended) in this story. Taking place in Japan, “Reeling for the Empire,” is a fantastical tale of girls turned into silk worms and held captive in a one room building to reel their lives away. This multi-faceted story brings the issue of human trafficking to the forefront of the social awareness spectrum. Most of these girls were sold into the silk trade by parents who were desperate to make a buck and were falsely promised a good job for their daughters. There is one anomaly in the bunch, Kitsune. Kitsune sold herself into this trade in the hopes of making a better life for the family she left behind. Unfortunately, she was deceived by the Recruitment Agent, just like the parents of all the other girls. While Kitsune is reeling her days away she starts to dwell on her choice to come to the Model Mill. She thinks about it day and night and it starts to change her. The thread she started out spinning was a beautiful green, but as she becomes consumed by her past decision her silk becomes darker and darker until it turns black. Kitsune eventually goes on strike until one day when she enlists all of her sisters to go through yet another transformation together. This story is a powerful reminder that we have the ability to choose, and our daily choices can lead us closer or further from living an abundant life.
While the bulk of this collection is quite heavy in nature, there are two reprieves from the very serious. I giggled through “The Barn at the End of Our Term” and laughed out loud a couple of times during “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating.” The former is a story about past presidents being turned into horses and living the rest of their days on a horse farm. That perspective of the afterlife is a funny idea of what could be. Some of the presidents are in complete and total denial while others have almost too eagerly accepted their fate. Russell whips up some witty exchanges that will make you wish you knew a little more about our presidential history. The latter is a comical compilation of the ten rules you need for tailgating in the Antarctic. First of all, why would anyone be tailgating in the Antarctic? The matchup is Team Krill verses Team Whale. I’ll let you guess who wins. Both of these stories include heavy concepts, and much like the other stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove there are degrees of transformation. Nevertheless, it was nice to have a break from the darker elements of many of the other stories.
Let’s take a pause from the book review and talk about me. My name is Robyn and I love stories. I enjoy books, movies, TV shows, and plays. To me a story is good when it makes me feel something. It doesn’t even matter what I feel necessarily. The question is, did it move me? Did I laugh? Did I cry? Did I get angry? If I can answer yes to any of those questions, then I’d probably recommend the story to someone else. A few years ago I saw the movie, Requiem for a Dream. If you’ve seen this movie you know that it is dark and graphic. At the end of the movie I went to my bedroom, got in bed, put my head under the blankets and cried my eyes out. I felt so sad and depressed, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how big and bad our world can be. I am a Follower of Jesus and I believe that he redeems us, and that gives me hope. When I get consumed by a story that highlights the depravity of man, I am forever grateful when I remember that we can all choose to be redeemed. So, let’s get back to the book review.
There are two stories in this collection that kind of got me in a funk, “Proving Up” and “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis.” In both of these stories we meet and identify with young boys. These boys both have to grow up too soon. One by choice the other by circumstance. Both of them are transformed by the end of the short story, and as the reader, so was I. Russell is not afraid to be dark. She’s not afraid for her reader to feel things. I like that in an author. I like that in a story.
Many readers will forego this collection based on the title alone, but if they are able to overcome their pride and pick up a book with the word “vampire” in the title, they will be pleasantly surprised. They will journey with a vampire, a silkworm, a massage therapist, and a host of other characters that find themselves in some of the most unbelievable transformations imaginable. Thankfully, Karen Russell is human enough to recognize that transformation is ubiquitous, and she is kind enough to communicate these eight different stories that share one very common thread. Transformation.
Thank you so much to Robyn for writing this. You are my darling bride, and you are exceptional. You bless me in your writing and in your love for Christ, the world, and little ‘ol me.