By Alena Graedon
Alena Graedon was born in Durham, North Carolina, and is a graduate of Brown University and the Columbia MFA program. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her first novel is The Word Exchange.
The characters in this numinous, electrifying, brilliantly imaginative collection undergo monstrous and miraculous transformations. Vampires morph from old Italian grandfathers to bats to vampires again. Boys turn into mute, mutant scarecrows. Girls metamorphose into kaiko-joko: silkworm caterpillars and slaves.
As these changes take place, the line between human and inhuman can seem vanishingly faint. But there are also subtler kinds of transmutations. Bad-luck boys reinvent themselves, with the help of hair dye and rapacious birds who hoard human destinies as scraps in an old tree.
Having the chance to visit each variegated world that Russell conjures—and the sublime words she uses to describe them—is more than reason enough to read these eight very moving, often very funny stories. But the thing that makes them especially mesmerizing and powerful is how profoundly human Russell’s monsters seem.
Implanted in each of their shape-shifting bodies are very familiar things: bloodlust, hunger, superstition, devastating memories, fictions we tell ourselves to go on living. But also buried inside are secret selves, strength, love, salvational creativity. For the characters to transform, these things often have to be wrenched out of them. And these extractions can lead not just to metamorphosis but sometimes to a sort of fusion.
At its best, reading, too, is a kind of fusion. Reading these stories, I felt as if many other lives, monstrous and human, had been poured into mine. But they also stirred my own thoughts and memories, creating something new. In the process, like Russell’s characters, I felt transformed.