By Leah Greenblatt
May 10, 2019 at 02:26 PM EDT
Knopf

Orange World

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It’s hard to know how to define Karen Russell’s writing; is it fantastical realism? Adult fairy tales? Her stories spill over with ghosts and devils, lost souls and dark magic. But they’re too feral and deeply textured to file under something as simple or straightforward as fantasy.

In haunted opener “The Prospectors,” two girls in the Depression-era Northwest find themselves trapped at a sort of house party of the damned; in “The Bad Graft,” a Joshua tree melds its prickly green consciousness with the unknowing host body of a young honeymooner; “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” leaps past one of literature’s most beloved doomed heroines and into the frantic canine mind of her little pet.

There’s hardly a traceable through-line in Orange World, other than a constant foreboding sense of the surreal. Nearly every sentence is infused with strange magic, but still rooted in enough reality to resonate — whether it’s an elderly widower breeding rogue storm systems on his ranch (in “The Tornado Auction”) or a desperate mother bargaining with a capybara-like goblin for the safety of her newborn son (in the final, titular entry).

If there’s any flaw here, it’s that Russell’s endings can feel abrupt and sometimes emotionally remote — almost as if having created worlds so intoxicating, she doesn’t know how to leave them behind either. A–

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