Short Stories Challenge – The New Veterans by Karen Russell from the collection Vampires In The Lemon Grove

Published December 3, 2015 by bibliobeth


What’s The New Veterans all about?:

In, The New Veterans a massage therapist discovers she has the power to heal by manipulating the tattoos on a war veteran’s lower torso.

What did I think?:

With Karen Russell’s collection, Vampires In The Lemon Grove, every time this rolls round in my Short Stories Challenge I am never quite certain what I am going to get. The penultimate tale in this strangely satisfying book is The New Veterans, told from the point of view of a masseuse called Beverley who has a very peculiar experience with her latest client, Derek Zeiger who is an Iraqi war veteran and, under the US government new regulations, is entitled to ten free massage sessions as one means of rewarding soldiers returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The first thing Beverley notices about her patient is the astounding tattoo taking up most of his back and it has a very interesting story behind it. The picture shows an Iraqi village, complete with a river, several huts, cattle, birds, several soldiers and a fire which appears to be the main focus of the tattoo. Derek explains that the tattoo represents the death of his friend Arlo Mackey who was killed during one of their missions in Iraq – Arlo is actually the “fire,” within the picture. Arlo’s mother loaned Derek and another three men in their platoon five hundred dollars each to get the artwork on their backs as a lasting tribute to her son.

“Plenty of guys in my unit got tattoos like this, you know. It’s how the dead live, and the dead walk, see? We have to honor his sacrifice.”

We now come to the point in the story where some serious X-Files type behaviour starts occurring. As Beverley is massaging her patient and listening to his story (which is having a clear therapeutic benefit in itself), something odd starts to happen to Beverley herself which neither she or the reader is expecting. With each additional massage session that Derek attends, the same thing occurs but seems to be getting stronger. It is as if his memories are being manipulated and re-moulded and Derek begins to feel increasingly better, not only from his original complaint of lower back pain but from his stressful and traumatic experience which led to the death of his friend.

The New Veterans was definitely one of the “goodies” of this collection. I enjoyed many things, from the beautiful imagery of the tattoo to the shocking reality of war and I admired how the author combined the two polar extremes to create a story that was entirely fantastical but at the same time felt very real. Beverley herself has not had the easiest of lives but in meeting Derek and being able to lift some of the burden from his shoulders she is the happiest that she can remember being in a long time. As well as being incredibly thought-provoking, I thought this was a very original idea for a story and actually felt disappointed at the end for I’m quite intrigued to know what became of Derek and Beverley as we follow the potential blossoming of a strong relationship. When an author makes you root for her main characters to such an extent, you know the story has got under your skin.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):


NEXT SHORT STORY: The Adventure Of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle from the collection The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes


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