BookBrowse Reviews Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell

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Orange World and Other Stories

by Karen Russell

Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell X
Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell
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  • First Published:
    May 2019, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2020, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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This short story collection by Pulitzer finalist Karen Russell is as moving as it is unconventional.

Karen Russell has a tremendous gift for crafting uncanny, through-the-looking glass worlds that are so much like our own, with a surrealist edge that asks insistent questions of "What if?" What if tornadoes were farmed like cattle, with the season's strongest stock of storms bid upon eagerly at auction? Outlandish scenarios are narrated as if they were normal. Her tone always seems to imply, "Yes of course there are tornado farmers, but let me tell you about this tornado farmer." The absurd circumstances are less noteworthy than the people living within them, because these are human stories where reality has been skewed just enough to make the settings fascinating, without making them unrecognizable to us.

In Russell's second story, "The Bad Graft," an impulsive young couple travel to Joshua Tree National Park on a whim of a cross-country trip. However, the spirit of a tree "leaps" into the woman's body and becomes a leech in her brain, changing her personality, rooting her to the area, unable to stray too far from the park. In "Black Corfu," 17th-century Korčula in Croatia is beset by zombies, and the doctor charged with severing the hamstrings of the dead so they cannot walk the earth suffers a blow to his professional reputation. "The Gondoliers" serves up post-environmental apocalypse dystopia, as a group of sisters navigate an underwater enclave of Florida, using echolocation to ferry passengers around the wasteland. In the title story, a woman gets more than she bargained for after making a deal with the devil to protect her unborn baby.

"The Tornado Auction" is the collection's standout, instilled with pathos and drama, and an entire redemptive character arc in the span of just 30 pages. Robert Wurman, the narrator, ran a tornado farm when his children were growing up; the storms were bred and raised for demolition purposes. However, after a terrible accident, he was forced to give it all up. Now a widower, Wurman impulse-purchases a tornado at auction, reigniting the passion for his work that never subsided. The storm represents everything he's ever lost that he's now desperate to reclaim, including his youth, wife, and time with his daughters. The story reaches a heart-wrenching crescendo that should not be spoiled with further description.

No one else does vivid, eerie and unsettling description like this; Russell's powers are simply unmatched. When the tree infects the female protagonist's mind in "The Bad Graft," it "dreams its green way up into her eyestalks, peers out." An especially unpleasant character in another story is depicted as a human cloud of grime: "blandly ugly as a big toenail...He smeared himself throughout their house, his beer rings ghosting over surfaces like fat thumbs on a photograph." Russell also offers plenty of humor, which is a relief given some of the emotionally challenging and downright creepy content throughout the book. One character is described as "so kind, so intelligent, so unusual, so sensitive...that his aunts had paid him the modern compliment of assuming that he was gay."

If you've never read a Karen Russell book, this is a great place to start (then go read 2011's Swamplandia, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize). Even if you're not ordinarily attracted to books with supernatural elements, Russell is so effective in humanizing this theme, capturing the joy of love and the pain of loss in even the most unusual of circumstances, she might make you a convert. And if you're a fan of Kelly Link or Lauren Groff, don't miss this one.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2019, and has been updated for the May 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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