Wednesday, July 09, 2014

"Vampires in the Lemon Grove; and Other Stories," by Karen Russell

I had high hopes for this short story collection by Karen Russell. While I haven't read any of her previous books, I had heard a couple of interviews with her that made me think it was something I would like. In fact I started it thinking it would be a candidate for my personal favorite book of the year – and some of the stories are definitely on my short list.

I have a fondness for the surreal, and for works that slide between genres and don't pin down easily. Some of the stories – like the title work, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" -- verge on horror, but to my mind aren't quite. Despite having a pair of aging, abstinent vampires as the main characters, generating dread in the reader is not the point. More like exploring the ennui and unrest of their unlives.

My favorite stories among the collection have many layers that go much deeper than the superficial fanciful initial impression. Others, while amusing enough, didn't reach beyond the whimsical and clever surface – at least for me. For my money, the two most successful stories in the bunch are "Reeling for the Empire" and "The New Veterans."

In "Reeling," young female factory workers, having been tricked into signing contracts for advance payments to their families, find themselves transformed into human silkworms. The story is more than an allegory for the forced labor that disgracefully continues all over the world. The main character has a fairly good idea of what she is getting herself into, but chooses it anyway as the only option within her means for helping her loved ones. She doesn't embrace her fate, but she does accept responsibility for her decision. Rather than giving up or surviving on futile dreams of returning to a past existence that has become unobtainable, she determines to take control of her life as it is. It's a story that will make you think about the crossroads in your own life, and consider your responses to the outcomes of choices that cannot be undone.

"Veterans" follows the relationship between a massage therapist and a special patient: a returning vet struggling with loss, guilt, and the trauma of PTSD. Her healing hands alter the images tattooed on the young man's back, in turn altering his memories. At first it all seems like a good idea – he's happy for the first time in ages. But his experiences cannot be truly erased, nor can unpleasant events in the therapist's own past that persist in chasing her down. In the end, this story is about surviving traumatic events of many kinds – and finding a way to live with them. All memory is mutable, but truth is truth and will not be forgotten.

So many fun stories – what kind of mind writes about dead presidents resurrected as horses on farm? In addition: two stories that will stay with me for some time to come. No complaints from me, and I will definitely be looking for Karen Russell's other works.

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