Skip to main content

Orange World and Other Stories

Review

Orange World and Other Stories

Karen Russell’s latest short story collection is nothing short of wondrous. Populated with ghosts, devils, the undead, farm-raised tornadoes and, oh yes, an assortment of quirky humans, and set in worlds that migrate from an island in the Adriatic Sea off Croatia in the 17th century to a drowned Florida in the aftermath of an ecological catastrophe to present-day Portland, Oregon, the stories in ORANGE WORLD pulsate with a beating heart that, for all of Russell’s literary virtuosity, is never subordinated to her technical skill. Add in her fresh, vibrant prose, and the stories overflow with life, both individually and cumulatively.

ORANGE WORLD is Russell’s third collection, and her first since VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE in 2013. In a comprehensive recent online interview with Esquire that’s essential reading for anyone who enjoys her work, she revealed her affinity for that form and hinted at the breadth of a curiosity that fuels a collection as strikingly diverse as this one. “For better or for worse,” she said, “I have this peripatetic imagination. I just want to go to different worlds and hop into different bodies.”

“The Prospectors,” which opens the collection, offers a good taste of the captivating strangeness of the stories to come. In it, Clara and Aubergine, two young women from southwest Florida surviving on little more than their wits (and a talent for petty crime) as they traverse the country in the midst of the Depression, find themselves at an Oregon ski resort one evening. A promised party turns out instead to be a spectral encounter that requires them to use the same skills that have sustained their travels, this time for sheer survival, and we're treated to a climax that's as frightening as any fashioned by Stephen King.

"At their best, Russell’s stories bring to mind Jim Shepard’s history-infused tales and the marriage of fantasy and reality in the work of George Saunders. But the talent she demonstrates once again in ORANGE WORLD is decidedly her own."

Russell brings that unsettling mood to “Black Corfu,” the story of a “posthumous surgeon” on the island of Korčula in 1620, whose job it is to disable the dead to prevent their transformation into vukodlaks, wandering spirits “spasming emptily on, mute and blue and alone.” The arrival of a young trainee from another island triggers a terrifying professional crisis for the doctor. The title story tells of a first-time mother who makes a deal with a thirsty devil, that “looks sometimes like a prehistoric porcupine, sometimes like a sort of mutant red raccoon,” to ensure the safety of her newborn son. It’s both surreal and a sly commentary on the insecurity of the early days of motherhood.

That duality is a consistent strength of ORANGE WORLD. In the Esquire interview, Russell explains that she’s not interested in writing stories that aren’t grounded in human experience, no matter how exotic their premise. “I think I really do have to start from a real place if the story’s going to work,” she says, “and by real I mean there has to be some access point for real emotion or a real question.” It's important to her to “find a way that readers can care about what’s happening even in a crazy story or a story that seems ridiculous or unworkable.”

And so for all its oddness, “Bog Girl: A Romance,” the tale of 15-year-old turf cutter Cillian Eddowis' discovery of the body of a young girl preserved for a millennium or more in a peat bog on his small island, is really the tender, if at times absurdly funny, story of a teenager’s first love. In “The Tornado Auction,” a Nebraska farmer nurtures a nascent storm cell and in the process conjures painful memories of his damaged relationships with his adult daughters, now “far away, rooted in new lives, and safe from me.” “The Bad Graft" is the story of young people on a “kind of honeymoon” who “felt their past lives in Pennsylvania dissolving into rumor, sucked up by the hot sun of California and the perfectly blue solvent of the sky” before the woman’s too-close encounter with a Joshua tree in the eponymous national park transforms her.

These three stories also hint at a sort of thematic unity to the collection --- the often perilous relationship between humans and nature. That theme hits with the force of a Category 5 hurricane in the collection’s penultimate story, “The Gondoliers.” The story takes place in “New Florida,” a post-apocalyptic waterworld where a young woman nicknamed “Blister” and her three sisters ferry passengers using bat-like echolocation. The account of the protagonist’s journey across one flooded, poisoned remnant of the former world with an engineer who helped design a failed seawall is both haunting and strangely beautiful:

“We go mazing between the toppled condominiums, which look like dark whelks lying on their sides. Golden awnings bloom on the former city’s northern border; the tenanted ruins rising in the west. Generator lights glow in several of the third-and fourth-story windows.”

At their best, Russell’s stories bring to mind Jim Shepard’s history-infused tales and the marriage of fantasy and reality in the work of George Saunders. But the talent she demonstrates once again in ORANGE WORLD is decidedly her own.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on May 17, 2019

Orange World and Other Stories
by Karen Russell

  • Publication Date: May 14, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0525656138
  • ISBN-13: 9780525656135