Book Review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

lemon grovesFirst published on 5th April, 2013 in StarMag

Author: Karen Russell
Publisher: Knopf, 243 pages

YOU’D be forgiven for thinking that this book might be another romance featuring an undead geriatric lusting (chastely) after a 16-year-old airhead, but sorry, if that’s what you were hoping for, you really should have known better, from the title, not to mention the bright yellow book jacket.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is just one story in a collection, and the only one about vampires, although all are as unsettling and uncanny as vampire stories should, but have, recently, ceased to be.

Vampires who suck on lemons instead of drinking blood sound like a joke, but the title piece is a terrifying tale about losing oneself in love – giving up the dreams and habits of a life time (several lifetimes in the case of Clyde the vampire), suppressing desires and instincts – it’s what we all do, even in relationships that don’t require us to stop from feeding on humans. In the end, is there anything of our true selves left, or are we totally consumed by the need to be loved and accepted?

In Reeling for the Empire, the self is once more lost – swallowed, quite literally, as young women, hoping for independence, become slaves to their own desires, transformed into human silkworms who must gorge on mulberry leaves and produce the finest silk, or bloat and die.

Then there’s The Barn at the End of Our Term, in which 11 horses appear to be reincarnations of United States presidents. Is the paddock heaven or hell? Why are only some of the ex-presidents there? The men are comfortable in their horse shapes: Woodrow Wilson delivers speeches in his sleep; James Buchanan rewrites his memoirs, laboriously, with his hooves, in the sod. Russell makes you believe in this afterlife, but the horses are not the point, it’s what we’ll be left with at the end of it all. It starts out being amusing and ridiculous, but then it’s suddenly full of empty, echoing, loneliness and loss. Even if there is a hereafter, will we be all ineffectually scratching out memories in the dirt?

karen russellRe-reading these tales is necessary to get to the bottom of them, but even then, no real answers are revealed, just more questions, and perhaps some nasty suspicions. These are stories about fear and doubt and regret. Healing doesn’t figure – it’s not a comforting, or heartening, or satisfying read, but a disturbing, upsetting one that you might wallow rather than revel in.

But Russell’s stories are not quite nightmares – they’re more like those dreams you can’t quite remember when you wake, that you can’t help think would actually reveal something vital if only you could recall what, dammit!

I didn’t breeze through Vampires in the Lemon Grove like I thought I would. I was, I admit, expecting something lighter, more whimsical, but what I got was something haunting and dark, a thought-provoking exploration of life and the fantastic shapes it assumes when you least expect it to.

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