Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Posted: Tuesday, June 17, 2014, 8:33 am

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Karen Russell

2013

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In brief

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These are stories that strain credulity while endeavoring to delineate exactly those things that make us human.

Karen Russell has made quite a name for herself among the literati, garnering critical accolades and racking up awards for tales that are notoriously offbeat and weirdly moving. The short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, highlights this dichotomy perfectly. It features eight vignettes that read like a post-modern addendum to Grimm's Fairy Tales. By that I mean they include all the freakish elements without any of the pat moralizing or easy answers. These are fables for the Lost generation-- works that strain credulity while endeavoring to delineate exactly those things that make us human.

As to accolades, I support them. There's been a lot of discussion lately about the merits of magical realism or, more specifically, the tendency to treat magical realism as a second-tier genre (Hint: it's not). All fiction (when done right) provides a way for us to understand ourselves through characters in stories. Whether those characters live a life with or without magic is not the deal-breaker some critics would have us believe.

So, what magic can you expect? How about a massage therapist who can witness and manipulate the trauma of her client through touch? Need more? It might interest you to know that Russell has conjured up a group of girls in a silk factory who slowly morph into silkworms themselves. Perhaps a ghostly and murderous homesteader is more to your liking. Russell invents one of those, too.

Yet beneath all this weird is something compelling and personal. These are stories that, however obliquely, present characters with depth, motive and complexity (yes, even the dead presidents reincarnated as horses). These stories also invite readers to consider larger themes, touching on topics as wide-ranging as globalization, post-traumatic stress disorder and bullying. It's a neat trick, this balance between the personal and the universal, the mundane and the phantasmagoric, but it's a trick Russell pulls off with aplomb. Like magic.