Many short story collections are tied together by a theme, either intentionally or due to some latent concern that rattles around the author’s subconscious and ends up infusing a body of work.
While Karen Russell’s new volume, “Orange World and Other Stories,” out Tuesday, has no explicit through line, her creativity is so variegated and abundant that it becomes thematic in its own right.
Her settings are temporally and geographically unmoored from the everyday, including a Depression era-lodge and a 17th-century Croatian island, yet they are deeply rooted in our natural world, with flora and fauna strewed about and colors and sounds radiating from the pages. These eight tales include ghosts, monsters, a 2,000-year-old girlfriend exhumed from a bog, and Madame Bovary’s pet greyhound as a POV character.
Highlights include the eponymous “Orange World” and “The Prospectors,” both of which appeared in the New Yorker. The former is a dystopian postpartum parable about a mother who, hoping to guarantee her child’s safety, makes a deal with the devil. The latter follows two mischievous young women who believe they are bound for the grand opening of a glitzy mountaintop hotel but instead end up in one that was buried by an avalanche two years earlier.
The fantastical is commonplace here, but nowhere is it more affectingly deployed than in the standout “The Gondoliers,” set in a future where climate change has reduced Florida to an ad hoc network of islands where it is illegal to live, yet thousands persist. Janelle and her three gondolier sisters navigate the treacherous seas via echolocation, using songs in lieu of sonar. It’s almost romantically beautiful, if eerily deadly, but the reality is laid bare by Janelle’s passenger, an old man who tells her, “People my age are criminals. We ruined the world.”