Growing into their worlds — essentially “growing up” — is still hard for the characters that populate the works of Karen Russell. Witness any of the eight astonishing stories in “Orange World and Other Stories,” her latest book.
Her first collection is the brilliant “St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves” from 2006. Her extraordinary novel “Swamplandia!” (2011) appears in part in “St. Lucy’s.” That novel is about growing up and how desperate a pursuit that can be. That is also the subject of some of the most eloquent work in “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” her 2013 volume of stories.
Reading Karen Russell’s works is an experience like no other. The ghost of an older sister’s first love draws a young girl deep into the Everglades. The human son of a minotaur searches for a sense of wonder in the world. A group of immigrant Asian women is held captive in a silk factory as they transform into human silkworms. A vampire transmutes himself into an old man with an addiction to artisanal lemons.
These earlier works are imaginative and often audacious. But most of all they haunt us as they find daring ways to comment on elemental human fears with such a generosity of spirit that we are comforted to have Russell in our corner.
And now the same must be said about the even darker stories about life’s evanescence that unfold in “Orange World” (four of which have appeared in The New Yorker). For example, the existence of “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” — the dog’s name is Djali — is as capricious as that of her owner.
In “The Prospectors,” during the Great Depression, two unprincipled young women from Florida (“long accustomed to reversals of fortune”) take the wrong chair lift and find themselves among the dead inhabitants of the Emerald Lodge in Oregon.
In “The Gondoliers,” one of a team of sisters is hired to transport an old man by water across “New Florida” to the end of the world on the last night of his, and possibly her, life.
An adolescent turf cutter on “a green island off the coast of Europe” experiences the joys and pain of first love with a young woman, centuries old, whom he cuts from the peat in “Bog Girl: A Romance.”
The relationship between an eloping young couple in the Mojave Desert grows in proportion to a cutting from a newly pollinated Joshua Tree, a cutting growing inside the young woman in “The Bad Graft.”
The 74-year-old storm breeder of “The Tornado Auction” finds himself impulsively buying one final tornado that not only becomes metaphor for the life he has lived but also has ramifications for the family he has impulsively made the choices about all his life.
In “Black Corfu,” a Moorish “Posthumous Surgeon” in the Adriatic of 1620 is accused of “carelessness” as he performs surgery to prevent the dead from becoming the Walking Dead.
Then there is “Orange World,” the frantically funny title story and one of the best in the collection. Rae, a new mother, discovers that the pact she has made to suckle the devil if he will assure her newborn’s safety in this world should really be null and void. That demon, it turns out, isn’t the devil, just a devil: “Why hadn’t she thought to appeal to heaven, Rae wonders now. She took the first deal offered. She’d done a better job negotiating for the Subaru.”
Karen Russell continues to dazzle us with her extraordinary explorations. “Orange World and Other Stories” takes us to astonishing worlds as it illumines our own with Russell’s spiritual largesse. The collection’s real magic is that it is bold and haunting, even as it is quite often startlingly droll.
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.