In "Reeling for the Empire," one of the eight stories appearing in Karen Russell's "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," a young woman pines for adventure in a rapidly changing 19th-century Japan.
Falling for the dubious charms of a "recruitment agent," what she gets instead is a life-draining job in a silk factory.
This being Russell - author of the wildly imaginative "Swamplandia!" as well as an equally inventive prior story collection - a potentially naturalistic tale lands instead in the twilight zone.
In her workplace, Kitsune Tajima tells us, girls and young women are themselves transformed, with each of them becoming a "secret, furred and fleshy silk factory" who eats mulberry leaves and attaches herself to a machine that gathers the silk she secretes. Without those machines, the silk women will die - or so it seems, until they concoct a satisfying revenge.
"Reeling is one of many stories in "Vampires" with protagonists who - like intrepid, 13-year-old Ava in "Swamplandia!" - are simultaneously impatient to grow up and horrified by the consequent changes, to the body and the self. Desire never brings peace to Russell's characters; no matter how exciting, it is also always troubling.
As is true throughout this collection, "Proving Up" exhibits the gorgeous writing that has characterized Russell's work from the beginning. Here's one example, as Miles describes his father's repressed rage at an unforgiving land that is killing him and his family:
"Pa's whole body draws back like a viper in its gold burnoose. I close my eyes and see the shadow of his secret self throbbing along the wall of our sod barn: his head rolling to its own music and sloshing with poisons. Even in the quiet I can hear him rattling."
As this representative passage suggests, Russell has a gift for metaphor; like this one, many involve animals. It's exactly what one would expect, from a writer who has once again mapped the dark country between our everyday and more primal selves.