I’m reading Karen Russell’s new collection of short stories and so far this one is hitting me right where I like it. “Reeling for the Empire”, a story about young women in Japan during the Meiji empire who are conscripted to spin silk in a factory and find themselves permanently altered by the commitment, stands out as a potent example of why I fell in love with this collection so quickly.
The story touches on all my sweet spots- magical fantasy, introspective and fascinating female protagonists, and my favorite pet fascination with Russell in particular – the female protagonist who believes herself to be the agent of her own undoing. Russell has written this type of character before in Swamplandia and in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a character who is struggling to understand the cause of her great transformative trauma, and to devise a way to transcend it. The meditation on regret in this iteration is especially captivating, and the narrator distills her understanding of it beautifully when she explains “Regret is a pilgrimage back to the place where I was free to choose.” How lovely and apt to think of regret, or any internal processing of memory or imagination as a journey, and especially to view the kind that you must repeat and revisit as pilgrimages. For gems like this it’s been a joy to watch the author develop over time, and as with all my favorite authors I derive as much pleasure watching them negotiate and construct recurring themes over the course of their careers. In this way, Russell joins the likes of Elissa Schappell, Don Delillo, and Jonathan Lethem, contemporary authors whose new works will always have a spot reserved on my “To Read” shelf.