A book's epigraph speaks volumes about the writer who has appropriated it. The thematic words at the beginning of Karen Russell's 2011 debut novel Swamplandia! contain a cluster of witty, riddling lines full of skewed logic from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass. An inspired and apposite choice, but then we would expect no less. Not every writer can pull this off. Bad writers graft lines from great books onto their average offerings either because their delusions of grandeur make them believe both books are kindred spirits or because they hope the classic can lend gravitas and insight and thus elevate their inferior effort. Good writers, on the other hand - and Russell is undeniably one - judiciously choose and affix epigraphs that touch on or tap into one of their book's concerns. Swamplandia! is a Southern Gothic medley of ghosts, grief and alligator-wrestling, its surrealist antics exuberant but never so as to engulf the ever-present streak of genuine human emotion - not unlike the Alice books, thn
Just by scanning the title of Russell's second collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, we realise we are in for another madcap ride down the rabbit hole. Each of the eight tales here is wildly inventive, some fiendishly bizarre. The title story is representative of the lot. On the first page we are introduced to an ageing man called Clyde, who sits in a lemon orchard in Sorrento watching the fruit ripen and fall. Before we have turned the page Russell pulls the rug from under us and sledgehammers us with a devious twist: visitors think he is a widower, an old man who has survived his children - "They never guess that I am a vampire."
Our expectations are toppled as Russell unveils a new plane of reality. We meet Clyde's beau and fellow vampire, Magreb, both of whom feast on lemons in the hope of assuaging their thirst for blood. Clyde looks back on his youth and recalls how Magreb taught him to lose his fear of daylight and garlic and encouraged him to swap his coffin for a real bed. He admits that back then "I was no suave viscount, just a teenager in a red velvet cape, awkward and voracious" - that appetite compelling him to drink pints of blood per day. So far so conventional, albeit for a tale with an absurd premise. But Russell counterpoises these standard tropes with a rich seam of humour ("I can tell you're not a morning person," Magreb tells the daylight-shy Clyde) and welcome dollops of pathos (Clyde used to be able to transmute into a bat several times a night but now struggles). Russell keeps the best for last, changing tack and bringing in tension as a young girl with an inviting neck appears. Suddenly Clyde is querying the efficacy of lemons as a substitute for blood and, like an addict coming undone, doubts he can keep his cravings for blood at bay.
Other stories dispense with the manic strain and go all-out odd. Reeling for the Empire and The Barn at the End of Our Term deal with fantastic conversions and so owe more to Kafka's Metamorphosis. The first tale, set in imperial Japan, focuses on a group of girls who, after being drugged by a transformation-inducing tea, become conscripted as "reelers" - "Some kind of hybrid creature, part kaiko, silkworm caterpillar, and part human female." The second, equally strange tale swaps silkworm-women in Japan for horse-men in a godforsaken barn in what is probably Kentucky. A group of former American presidents find themselves reincarnated as horses: "Whig, Federalist, Democrat, Republican" are now Clydesdales, palominos and skewbald pintos.
From : The National