By Karen Russell
My wonderful friend Lori sent me this just because she thought I’d like it and it arrived in the mail in the middle of my Atlas Shrugged doldrums, and it was such a mood lifter, just having it on my to-read shelf. The cover is just so bright and graphic!
I had heard of the author, Karen Russell, through a brief review of her previous book Swamplandia!, which I had assumed was a comic narrative of Florida craziness á la Elmore Leonard. If it is anything like this book, though, (and I believe it is, according to the blurbs on the back cover) my assumptions are way off. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is the strangest book! It is a collection of short stories, and when I described the premise of each story to Rebecca, they just sounded kind of absurd:
“All silkworms in the Western hemisphere have died, so China is now the sole proprietor of silk, and in order to meet the now increased demand, they have discovered a way to turn women into more efficient silk worms.”
Rebecca said, “hmm.”
But, this story and the others are just beautifully written and poetic, even. Russell emphasizes the senses in her writing, describing not just the sights, but also the sounds, smells, tastes and touch of the worlds she builds. In the titular lemon groves, she describes the sun on the fluttering leaves, the feel of the wind that blows through the grove, the smell of lemon that pervades, and the sweet tartness of the lemons and lemonade.
The silkworm story took a bizarre and, quite frankly, almost silly premise and created layers upon layers of symbolism. The disenfranchised, used for production and others’ profit, find hope in self-identity and transformation. Each story was like this; reading them felt like scuba diving or spelunking, moving deeper and deeper through layers of alien landscapes. The stories themselves, too, seemed to each move a little deeper into the human psyche, getting darker and darker, until the last two broke my heart. So, take that as a caution: don’t avoid reading the book, by any means, but just be emotionally prepared.
It wasn’t a quick read because I wanted to savor each story for several days after reading it and before reading the next one. The only criticism I have is that each story ended too soon, almost abruptly, and each time I was left sort of blinking my way out of the story’s world and wanting to know far, far more about the characters.
Three word review: “otherworldly, emotionally devastating”*
*I’m not promising to always follow Kinsey’s lead with the three word reviews (though I love her addition), but I found these in the NPR review, and they just seem spot-on.