Orange World, Karen Russell's latest collection of short stories, is surreal and unsettling

Karen Russell, the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim award, won the 2012 and the 2018 US National Magazine Award for fiction, and her first novel, Swamplandia! (2011) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Russell sees her third collection of short stories, Orange World, "as being primarily a collection of long landscape stories, where setting is not a static, painted backdrop for human dramas but where nonhuman nature intersects with a character's interior world".

In the title story, a new mother Rae makes a deal with a minor devil, "a knockoff Satan", to save her pregnancy.

After the baby is born she has to suckle the devil early each morning to keep the baby safe. Russell has said the story "reflects the surreal landscape that you enter after birth".

The demon highlights the anxieties of pregnancy.

Her young mother's group, sometimes as frightening as the devil, tell her you've made a "Rookie mistake, babe", but provide the means for Rae to dramatically wean herself off the devil.

In 'The Prospectors,' set in a remote mountain area in Oregon during the Great Depression, two young women take the wrong lift up a mountain to a ski lodge populated by ghosts of workers who died in an avalanche and who now simply want to party all night.

Even though the women realise that the ghosts are just "boys our age", their struggles to escape reflect the necessary "calculations" of many women in a male dominated world.

In 'The Bad Graft', a young couple, Angie and Andy, are vacationing in a California national park.

Angie pricks her finger on a Joshua tree enabling the spirit of thE tree to enter her body which prevents her leaving the park.

The Joshua tree laments, however, that "compared with the warm and expansive desert soil, the human body is a cul-de-sac".

The desert setting reflects their collective angst and Angie's growing estrangement from Andy.

Several stories reflects ecological change. 'The Gondoliers' is set on the polluted canals in a future South Florida that is largely underwater due to climate change.

Four gondolier sisters," bat girls", navigate the waters by echolocation, we "vowel our way down the channels".

But there are decidedly no-go areas and the youngest sister, violating an aquatic code, poles her gondola into dangerous waters in what is clearly becoming a "newborn world".

Russell, in crisp, fluid and entertaining prose, skilfully intertwines mundane domestic settings with a telling seasoning of the surreal.

  • Orange World and Other Stories, by Karen Russell. Chatto & Windus. $32.99.
This story Short stories with a surreal and unsettling tinge first appeared on The Canberra Times.