What’s Reeling for the Empire all about?:
Reeling for the Empire is the second story in this collection by Karen Russell where a community of girls held captive in a silk factory slowly transmute into human silkworms, spinning delicate threads from their own bellies, and escape by seizing the means of production for their own revolutionary ends.
What did I think?:
This story is set in Japan at the height of the Empire, where tasks that are normally carried out by machines are becoming further industrialised to “keep up” with Western society. The sinister twist to this tale however, is that young women are being forced into carrying out work normally associated with the humble little silkworm to respond to an increased demand for high quality silk. It is more unnerving still when the reader learns that by means of a special drink, the women can actually become like silkworms, harnessing the power to spin the silk from their own bodies, at greater volumes and at greater speeds, reducing the need for expensive equipment. The wage paid for this task is pitiful, but in society at that time fathers were grateful for any monetary reward (as the daughter seemed to have little to say about it) so were keen to offload their child/burden on someone else and receive financial compensation for it. Our narrator Kitsune is slightly different in that she entered the factory of her own free will, but during her metamorphosis and entrapment with the other women, discovers the true meaning of revolution.
This collection is my first experience of Karen Russell’s work, and although I enjoyed the first story (Vampires in the Lemon Grove), I absolutely loved this one, and it has cemented the author as a real talent in my opinion. A bit of darkness in stories is one of my favourite things, and this tale had it in abundance. The characters were superb, and the plot so compelling that I rushed to get to the end, and was sorry to leave it, although I am convinced that it was the perfect length for what the author was trying to achieve. A beautiful narrative with a genuinely disturbing ending, this story is going to stay in my mind for a long while!
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):
NEXT SHORT STORY: The Red-Headed League by Arthur Conan Doyle, from the collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes