This comprehensive collection of short stories range from lemon-eating vampires to U.S. presidents reincarnated as horses; it’s expansive and full-flowered in its creative approach to the story and tale. In its title story, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” Russell writes about a vampire couple that are slowly starving, staving their appetite for human blood by eating succulent, Italian lemons. “Proving Up” takes us back a century to the hard, dusty West, and to a family struggling with the establishment of home; “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” deals with schoolyard bullying gone awry, and a creepy, mutilated scarecrow that happens to look exactly like a bullied boy the group of youth used to torment. In my favorite, “Reeling for the Empire”, a group of girls are held hostage in a silk factory, slowing transforming into silk worms, themselves. The ending is revolutionary, and entirely satisfying. Each of these eight stories comment on a slice of life that varies enormously, admirably—Russell’s voice is quickly becoming a classic that defies genre—horror, fantasy, drama—they all lead to one inevitable thing: Russell knows story-telling.
Karen Russell has been one of my favorite writers since college. She infuses her stories with a sharp creativity that is fascinating to read. Her language seems to multiply on the page—her descriptions are lush, evocative, and downright chilling. There is a common denominator to this group—there’s a pervading sadness that can be found in each, a cry for humanity or a commentary on it. Hers is the type of writing that is highlighter-ready—there are so many phrases that are startling in both their truth and composition. The sheer imaginative force of her stories is something that is a stand-alone. Her characters are complex, so uniquely crafted in their faults and triumphs. She writes of magic, and the daily monsters, and a sort of world that is both fantastical and familiar; it is ever varying, always surprising.
The only thing I’d even dare to comment on negatively is that the collection is gloomy. Her stories are beautiful and rich with a sort of language I could only dream of, but there is no break in the sadness, the perpetual gothic overtone of loss, of human disappointment, and the bleakness that is found in every area of life. This is probably on purpose, but there is less of the lightness that was incorporated in her earlier collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girl’s Raise by Wolves. I wouldn’t recommend this collection in one sitting. It’s something to savor and read over again and again, but with a break, in order to escape the deep, glorious gloom that is so prevalent throughout.
Karen Russell is only gaining momentum; her imagination and prose’s verve keeps her one step ahead of everyone else.
Reviewed by M.B. Sellers
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 2/12/2013