publication date: 2013
Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a collection of short stories published by Karen Russell, the author of Swamplandia! In this collection, Russell explores the strength of humanity and her vivid imagination by presenting eight stories from diverse points-of-view.
Russell clearly spent time researching, honing, and crafting her stories. They are peppered with minor facts, such as massage techniques, silkworm biology, and Antarctic geography. Additionally, the often-fantastical settings of the stories are richly and vividly conveyed. After I put the book down, the thing my mind would turn to most in reflection was the settings of the stories. Perhaps the most indelible such setting was found in “Reeling for the Empire,” a story of Japanese young women tricked into producing silk by being turned into silkworms themselves. The setting was a factory cave and in one sentence Russell tells you almost everything you need to know:
One of the consequences of our captivity here in Nowhere Mill, and of the darkness that pools on the factory floor, and of the polar fur that covers our faces, blanking us all into sisters, is that anybody can be anyone she likes in the past.
However, Russell’s intense research and near-universal success at invoking atmosphere was not always enough to create a successful story. In fact, the breadth of the varying narrators and characters’ knowledge about obscure topics sometimes made a story forced or inorganic, as if Russell spent more time researching her subject matter than thinking about her characters or plots. Additionally, many of the stories were just fun ideas she probably should have left as ideas. For instance, “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” was a list of rules for those who want to travel to Antarctica to watch Team Whale beat Team Krill in the Food Chain Games. Kind of an amusing idea but am I really going to enjoy reading ten pages about that?
Russell’s dialogue was also inconsistent. There was a great scene in “The New Veterans” where two adult sisters fight about the responsibilities they shared during their mother’s illness and death. The sisters are petty, ordinary, and a little mean and the dialogue conveys a sense that they’ve had this argument before. But, notwithstanding that excellent bit, much of Russell’s dialogue is contrived.
Some of the stories I would read as quickly as I could just so they would be finished, but others would contain these nuggets of literary gold that I would write down, ponder, and summon to my mind much later. For example, this line from “Reeling for the Empire,”
Regret is a pilgrimage back to the place where I was free to choose.
Or this one from “The Seagull Army descends on Strong Beach, 1979:”
That summer Nal was fourteen and looking for excuses to have extreme feelings about himself.
The stories are not all great, but the good ones are just good enough to be worth reading the whole book.
4/6: worth reading
other reviews of the collection: