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Orange World, Karen Russell’s third short story collection, is elegant and eldritch

This anthology reads exactly like a Karen Russell book. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.

The cover of the book “Orange World” by Karen Russell. Knopf
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Orange World,” the title story in Karen Russell’s terrific new short story anthology, is so good that I want to turn it into a pamphlet and give it to every new mother I know. It’s a kind of parable about night feeding, featuring a young mother who has made a dark bargain and now must awaken at 4:44 am every morning in order to breastfeed the devil.

“That fucking thing,” says the young mother’s group to whom the heroine confesses her predicament. “Rookie mistake, babe.”

“Orange World,” along with the other seven stories in this collection, is an encapsulation of Russell’s work. It shows off all her characteristic strengths — and her small weaknesses.

Russell’s stories are reliably funny, empathetic, studded with beautiful sentences, and gently, spine-tinglingly creepy. They take place in a world in which everything is haunted, but also just a little too mundane to be really scary. The devil in “Orange World” turns out to be just a devil, not Satan himself. The ghosts of “The Prospectors,” who force their fortune-seeking victims to dance all night, are just “boys, I couldn’t help but think, boys our age.” The zombies of “Black Corfu” are way less scary than the gossip mongers who smear a poor doctor’s reputation, and the Joshua tree that possesses a young woman in “The Bad Graft” mostly likes going to church and then going out dancing.

The tension here comes from how the supernatural and the domestic waltz hand-in-hand through Russell’s work, and it’s elevated by the precision of her prose, all crisp literary rhythms and haunting, eldritch imagery.

But Orange World is also Russell’s third short story collection (she’s also the author of Swamplandia!, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2012, and the novella Sleep Donation), and by this point, her short stories are starting to feel familiar. They’re not bad, not even close, but for a Russell fan, reading Orange World can come with a faint sense of deja vu. Every time I began another piece with a played-straight supernatural premise (man raises tornados for rodeo; boy falls in love with corpse pulled out of a bog), filled with eye-catching sentences that put verbs to unusual use (“snow waked groggily into water,” “the bog had confessed her”), I found myself thinking, “Did I read this one already?” It feels as though Russell is staying in one place rather than developing her powers in new directions. The formula is beginning to show.

Never mind; it’s a good formula. I’d love to see Russell try something new, but as long as she keeps executing her old formula with this much care and tenderness every time, it’s always a pleasure to read.