A Review of Karen Russell’s ‘Orange World’
Florida native Karen Russell makes the fantastical normal in her latest short story collection.
In this collection of fabulist short stories, Russell draws the reader in to a world that is as enchanting and fascinating as it is terrifying. She encourages the reader to discover for themselves the realities of these worlds as her characters do so. The mundane is fantastical in Orange World, coexisting with our reality, and this blending of real and bizarre is what makes it such a compelling read.
In “The Prospectors,” Clara and Aubergine, having run away from Florida to Oregon, are now struggling for money to pay their board. Invited to the opening of the Evergreen Lodge by Eugene de la Rochefoucauld, Clara and Aubergine wait to take the lift to get to the inn. They instead end up at the Emerald Lodge, built by the Oregon Civilian Conservation Corps., which has been destroyed by an avalanche a couple of years prior to Clara and Aubergine arriving to the party there– a party underway with all 26 men who had helped build the lodge and who subsequently died in the avalanche. Trapped in a lodge full of dead men with no way out until morning, Clara and Aubergine navigate a night amidst the dead men, lest they die and are trapped there forever.
In “The Bad Graft,” young couple Angie and Andy travel to Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave. Angie pricks her finger on a Joshua Tree and, slowly, the spirit of the tree takes on a life of its own in her. Both unaware of this transformation, they continue on their journey, as Angie gets headaches trying to fight the spirit of the tree. Before they are about to leave town, Angie decides she wants to stay—she feels she belongs in the Mojave, the spirit of the tree keeping her tethered to the region. Angie and Andy sign a lease, and the Joshua Tree’s hold over Angie grows. Andy, baffled at the changes in Angie, tries his best to help her, suggesting dancing and a hike, but the Joshua Tree’s power over her continues to increase as they stay in the Mojave.
The eponymous “Orange World” has a pregnant woman making a deal with the devil, hoping for the safe and healthy birth of her baby. Trapped in her contract after the baby is born, the mother attends a group for new mothers, at first hesitant to reveal her deal with the devil, and soon discovers she is not the first mother this devil has manipulated into an agreement in exchange for something. The group of women band together to banish the devil from southern Portland and concoct a plan to get rid of the devil in the nighttime.
The most compelling feature of this collection is the way Russell beautifully weaves together the fantastical and the mundane and situates these worlds. The fantastical is the normal in Russell’s writing, allowing for an exploration of these fantastical creatures through the lens of our own realities. Through these stories, Russell uses these fantastical characters and their situations as a mirror to examine our society, most noticeably when, in “Orange World,” she writes, “Rae doesn’t want to begrudge another woman her confidence, her certainly hard-won confidence in a society that prides itself on dismantling women’s testimonies.”
This collection of poignant and surreal stories is a must-read for anyone interested in the quirky and the magical, the fantastical and the supernatural. Russell does a wonderful job of making the reader feel like they too belong in the wonderfully weird worlds she creates.