Orange World and Other Stories, Karen Russell, Penguin, pp. 288, £14.99 (hardcover)
Karen Russell’s third short story collection Orange World is every bit as inventive as we have come to expect from the writer, but it also marks a shift. The breathless magic of her earlier work has developed into something confident and unhurried, which solidifies her as a permanent fixture on the American literary landscape.
These are stories about bridging gaps between two worlds, often juxtaposing life and death: a boy falls in love with the preserved corpse of a young woman pulled out of peat; two women find themselves the only living guests at a party of dead men. Even the title story, about a woman who makes a pact with a demon to protect her baby, is about that halfway space between a “Green world” of perfect parenting and safe infants and “Red world” where danger and death reign.
The conflict that emerges from these gulfs is what makes the collection sing. Some stories from Russell’s first collection St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, while enchanting, get as far as coming up with a fascinating idea and then left it there; any dramatic tension hinged on realisation.
Orange World pushes past that, and even leaves behind the knife-slit quickness of a fatal ending which appears more than once in her previous collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Instead, characters are pushed to overcome challenges or make a hard choice.
Standing in their paths are the wild forces of nature that inhabit Russell’s imagination, a warped elemental parade of bog-mud, forests, the desert, floods and hurricanes.
In both ‘The Bad Graft’ and ‘The Tornado Auction’, protagonists must choose between the pull of these phenomena and the people they love.
The former, in which a Joshua tree spirit leaps into the body of a woman, shows a person changed by an unseen force. Possessed by the tree, Angie acts out of character, experiences a “sprawling emotion” and leaves her boyfriend Andy wondering what has happened to her. It is a painfully real exploration of how relationships adjust when the people in it change.
In the second, a father grapples with how his career as a professional storm-maker has damaged his relationship with his daughters. While his awe at the beauty of tornadoes never subsides, he recognises the way their destructive energy has infected his own life: “I saw, I understood, that in fact I had always been the greatest danger to my family.”
In the face of these forces, love frequently saves the day. It is love between couples or sisters or parents and children that snatches a hopeful ending for several stories. Overall, this is an optimistic collection.
Some might point to this as evidence that Russell has softened up; I would it simply shows how her range has expanded. Characters do not always need to meet violent ends for their stories to have meaning.
There is also much here to please fans of the back-catalogue. As ever, Russell is concerned with monsters and what happens when you become one. ‘Black Corfu’ deals with this in a way that feels urgent, despite being set in 17th Century Croatia.
When the reputation of a doctor who performs surgery on the dead to finds his reputation questioned, it creates a second, shadowy self in his mind: “Another doctor is now caroming around Korčula Town: leering and fiendish and floppy handed. Apocalyptically incompetent. The doctor’s twin, ruining his good name.” The doctor’s struggle to convince the town that he is not the monster they perceive him to be taps into anxieties attached to our own age’s obsession with how we are seen by others.
But the penultimate story ‘The Gondoliers’ presents a contrasting, more optimistic idea of what it means to be a monster. Four sisters develop a bat-like ability to navigate using echoes, which helps them ferry passengers around a flood-submerged Florida. It is an eerie look into a future where climate disasters are causing human mutations, but the narrator has little time for lament: “Our home is no afterlife, no wasteland… our world is newborn.” She and her sisters do not see themselves as mutating but evolving.
Russell also maintains her characteristically dreamy prose. A collector of language, she gathers up vocabulary and re-purposes it, talking about weather events in the terms of cattle-ranching or a floodscape as though it’s a symphony.
Her fascination with words is evident. So much so that we see the terminology of language itself seeping into her descriptions. Torches are found “lipping orange syllables over the toppled stones” in Korčula, while the Gondolier girls “vowel our way down the channels”.
It is a good time for the short story, especially ones which use horror or fairytale elements to explore our contemporary preoccupations. New writers shaking up the genre include Salt Slow author Julia Armfield, Her Body and Other Parties author Carmen Maria Machado, and Kristen Roupenian (of ‘Cat Person’ fame) with her collection You Know You Want This.
Russell meanwhile has been on this beat since the mid-noughties. Her work in its current form shows the next step. It would be easy for her to rest on the laurels of her vivid imagination, but the progression visible in her growing body of work is good news for both her readers and the future of the short story form.
For more information and to buy Orange World, visit Penguin Random House
Words by Alys Key.
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