Saturday, March 23, 2013

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Karen Russell's latest collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, is astonishing in variety and inventiveness. As with her earlier collection, St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and her novel Swamplandia!, Russell mixes surprising elements of the fantastical into realistic settings: vampires in contemporary Italy; fortunetelling seagulls who descend on an otherwise ordinary coastal town; girls who take on the role of silkworms in Edo-period Japan. In a brilliant send-up of sports fan culture, Team Krill champions the eternal underdog in the Food Chain Games in "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating."

The title signals the strangeness to be encountered, the juxtaposition of night creatures with a garden bathed in sunshine. This story, set in Sorrento, is narrated by a nostalgic vampire: "there is no word sufficiently lovely for the first taste, the first feeling of my fangs in that lemon. It was bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt. After an initial prickling -- a sort of chemical effervescence along my gums -- a soothing blankness travelled from the tip of each fang to my fevered brain."

Each story has a wildly different premise and its own unique voice. The young 19th-century narrator in "Proving Up" describes "evil turkeys that have heads like scratched mosquito bites." This one gets progressively creepier; Russell often explores greed, cruelty, obsession and other dark subjects. But it is her tongue-in-cheek humour that makes me love her writing so much.

The final story, "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis", is the most disturbing. A scarecrow who takes revenge on a group of teenage bullies in New Jersey reminded me of the tragedy of Matthew Shepard. (Coincidentally, I've got October Mourning next up on my reading list. It's Leslea Newman's verse novel in multiple voices about Shepard's death and its aftermath.)

Russell talks about her writing and reads from Vampires in the Lemon Grove on Radio Times, available online here.

Readalikes (novels as well as short stories): Please Ignore Vera Dietz (A.S. King); The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Aimee Bender); Pretty Monsters (Kelly Link); Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (Zsuzsi Gartner) and anything by Margo Lanagan or Franz Kafka.

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