Tammy Sparks's Reviews > Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
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May 09, 2013

it was amazing
Read from February 01 to 16, 2013

In a word: strange, unearthly, jaw-dropping, and absurd

A friend of mine once tried to describe Cirque du Soleil to me (before I had seen it for myself), and told me it was like a group of aliens had landed on Earth and decided to put on a circus. This is how I feel about Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Karen Russell is a strange and exotic alien creature who has come to our planet to tell us her stories, and having heard them, our minds have expanded and accepted new ideas of just what a short story can be. Russell has a knack of taking innocuous objects—a scarecrow, a lemon, a window, a horse—and redefining them in odd and unexpected ways. Here’s a sampling of some of my favorites:

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

“I walk beneath a chandelier of furry bodies, heartbeats wrapped in wings the color of rose petals or corn silk. Breath ripples through each of them, a tiny life in its translucent envelope.”

A poignant love story between two vampires who live in an Italian lemon grove, this tale is narrated by the vampire Clyde, whose lover Magreb has convinced him that he doesn’t need blood to survive. Instead, they sink their fangs into the tangy pulp of the lemons that fall from the trees. The fruit calms the blood lust, but only for a while. This idyllic life suits Clyde, but Magreb is unhappy and wants to leave the grove. You’ve got to love a story that uses a funicular in the plot!

Reeling for the Empire

Probably my favorite story of the bunch, this is also one of the strangest and most disturbing. In a future Japan, young girls are taken away from their homes to become kaiko-joko (silkworm workers) after a cataclysmic virus has decimated the silkworm population. There's a twist to this story that you won't believe—and I don't want to spoil the surprise. It's a heartbreaking tale of having your choices taken away, but becomes uplifting when the girls discover a way to escape their fate. I absolutely loved it!

Proving Up

“Snow falls and falls. Tomorrow, I think, the thirsty sod will drink this storm up, guzzle the red runoff from my chin. Acres of gold wheat wave at me from the future: March, April.”

A hard-working family of farmers prepares for the Inspector, the only man who can grant them ownership of the land they have been carefully farming for five years. Only one last thing is required to gain the title: a real glass window set into the sod walls of their house. But first they have to share their precious window with a neighbor. This is the story of eleven-year-old Miles who is entrusted to take the window to the next farm over, and to bring it back in one piece before the Inspector comes. A gritty and sad tale that takes a sharp left into terrifying.

The Barn at the End of Our Term

“Rutherford stared down into a drainage ditch and saw a horse’s broody face staring back at him. His hooves were rough, unfeeling endings. He stamped, and he couldn’t feel the ground beneath him. The gonging wasn’t a clock at all, he realized with a warm, spreading horror, but the thudding of his giant equine heart.”

Another favorite of mine, this story made me laugh out loud! President Rutherford B. Hayes wakes up in the body of a horse, and realizes he's sharing the barn with eleven other reincarnated-as-horses dead presidents. As he comes to terms with his fate, Rutherford becomes convinced that his wife Lucy Webb Hayes has returned as the sheep that shares their barn, and he’ll do anything to keep her safe. Russell adds depth to this story by flashing back to Rutherford’s and Lucy’s lives as humans. Like she does in the other stories, the author is able to infuse humanity into all the creatures she writes about.

Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating

RULE FIVE-A: IF YOUR WIFE LEAVES YOU FOR A MILLIONAIRE MOTEL-CHAIN-OWNING DOUCHEBAG FAN OF TEAM WHALE, MAKE SURE YOU GET YOUR BELOVED MOCK-BIOLUMINESCENT TEAM KRILL EYESTALKS OUT OF THE TRUNK OF HER CIVIC BEFORE SHE TAKES OFF.

Pure absurdity is the reason most of these stories are successful. This one tops the list in the absurdity department for sure, and is another of my favorites. Dougbert Shackleton gives us his full-proof rules on how to behave, pack for, and survive the Food Chain Games in the Arctic. Dougbert is “Team Krill,” and by God, this year his team is going to beat “Team Whale” if it kills him. (And it just might…) This tongue-in-cheek story pokes fun at fanatical sports fans while giving the reader sound advice about surviving in an unlivable location.

The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis

This story reminded me of Stephen King’s The Body, a tale of four teenage boys whose bullying ways at school are about to get them in trouble. A gang of troublemakers, who call themselves “Camp Dark,” discover an odd scarecrow tied to a tree that resembles a missing boy named Eric Mutis. The story starts out innocently enough, but soon turns dark and unsettling.

I fully expect one of these stories will be chosen for the 2013 Best American Short Stories anthology. The stories take place in times and locations that are just slightly left of normal; you may recognize the landscape, but it’s as though you’re looking at it through distorted glass. Karen Russell’s quirky interpretation of life’s small moments is a must-read for discerning readers who appreciate the unusual.

Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof and may be different in the finished version.

This review originally appeared on Books, Bones & Buffy.
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