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Book review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Though her whimsical conceits can overwhelm her tales, Russell's fertile imagination is eventually grounded by a human fragility

By Matthew Love

By Karen Russell. Knopf, $25.

No matter how far we drift into the Antarctic to cheer for indifferent crustaceans or how long we stay away from the girls reeling silk from their mutant bellies, we can’t escape our pasts. Okay, the circumstances may be atypical, but the lesson remains. Karen Russell, a young fiction phenom whose debut novel, Swamplandia!, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer last year, makes it all clear in her second story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.

In pieces that range from diverting frolics to ominous, cautionary tales, the author uplifts underdogs and rattles the willfully ignorant. In “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” several dead U.S. Presidents are reincarnated as horses and dispatched to the same stable; their egos arrive intact. Four young bullies are haunted by their transgressions in “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” as a onetime classmate revisits them in the form of a scarecrow. After discovering birds that hide humans’ important artifacts and thwart their promising futures in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” an awkward boy attempts to reverse his fortunes.

Though this batch of stories is another testament to the fecundity of Russell’s imagination, the weakness of her previous volumes stands here, too. Things get dark, unflaggingly so at times, but the whimsical conceits that Russell plays with can overwhelm the thrust of the tales. Take the title story: It’s about a vampire who looks like a grandpa, sucks on lemons to curb his bloodlust and walks everywhere because he’s afraid to fly. But don’t run screaming out of the sunlight: Russell knows to ground her fancies with human fragility. This, and the ideas at play, is what sticks around.

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