By Abigail Fisher
Human silkworms, a vampire’s midlife crisis and horse presidents shouldn’t have anything to do with reality, but somehow author Karen Russell meshes otherworldly narratives with relatable characterization and emotion in her latest book Vampires in the Lemon Grove. This collection of short stories maintains an aura of fantasy throughout each vignette, managing a comfortable flow from one narrative to the next despite the vastly differing worlds in which they take place.
Russell opens Vampires in the Lemon Grove with the piece from which the title is derived. A tale of disillusionment, vampire Clyde must readapt in the light of the facts his wife Magreb has shed on the true nature of vampires. This story speaks to the nature of free will and addiction, following Clyde’s continual dissatisfaction with his varying modes of subsistence, including their most recent diet of bianchetti lemons.
Each subsequent setting portrays a unique world, differing in both period and locale. A Chinese silk factory in which the workers are transformed into human silkworms, sets the stage for the next chapter “Reeling for the Empire.” One of the funniest stories, “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” is narrated by Rutherford B. Hayes, who finds himself and other former presidents trapped in horse bodies. The horse presidents’ ridiculous attempts to govern the barnyard reflects a satirical view on politics that you can’t help but chuckle at.
The final story in the collection, “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” is a sobering tale of high school bullying. When a gang of four boys finds a scarecrow in the likeness of Eric Mutis, a boy they used to torment, the search to find answers only leads to self-reflection and fear. The last pages are suspenseful and heartbreaking, as one of the boys, Larry, seeks reconciliation for his past cruelties.
Each story is more riveting and question provoking than the next. You will find yourself turning the last page on a chapter and wishing an entire book was made to follow the inconclusive ending to a point of reconciliation. A comfortable ending is not the point of Russell’s work though. The stories wouldn’t have the same impact if each plot was resolved; the reader wouldn’t have as much to dwell on. Vampires in the Lemon Grove strives to push our boundaries past boxed reality into a realm of open-mindedness. Russell succeeded in writing a book that doesn’t settle for a traditional narrative structure but rather embraces ambiguity to encourage reflection.
Released Feb. 14, Vampires in the Lemon Grove has already received high praise from The New York Times Book Review. Russell’s “Swamplandia” was one of The New York Times Best Book of the Year in 2011 and was nominated for the Orange Prize.