This month’s two New Title Tuesday picks are only similar in their unusual settings and the emotional depth of the characters. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips is a thriller set in an almost inaccessible former military zone in Russia. The short stories in Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell take the reader from Florida to a remote island in Ireland, back to Depression-era Oregon, and on to Croatia.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips Publisher’s Summary: One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern edge of Russia, two girls–sisters, eight and eleven–go missing. In the ensuing weeks, then months, the police investigation turns up nothing. Echoes of the disappearance reverberate across a tightly woven community, with the fear and loss felt most deeply among its women.
Taking us through a year in Kamchatka, Disappearing Earth enters with astonishing emotional acuity the worlds of a cast of richly drawn characters, all connected by the crime: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. We are transported to vistas of rugged beauty–densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes, and the glassy seas that border Japan and Alaska–and into a region as complex as it is alluring, where social and ethnic tensions have long simmered, and where outsiders are often the first to be accused.
In a story as propulsive as it is emotionally engaging, and through a young writer’s virtuosic feat of empathy and imagination, this powerful novel brings us to a new understanding of the intricate bonds of family and community, in a Russia unlike any we have seen before.
There are some trigger warnings. As Phillips has said in interviews, Disappearing Earth is a means of exploring the violence in women’s lives, violence in many forms: The aforementioned widowing, which occurs when a man dies in a car accident on an icy road. Domestic violence in all its abusive forms. Abduction, rape, keeping secrets, said Bethanne Patrick in her review for NPR.
Orange World and Other Stories publisher’s summary: Karen Russell’s comedic genius and mesmerizing talent for creating outlandish predicaments that uncannily mirror our inner in lives is on full display in these eight exuberant, arrestingly vivid, unforgettable stories. In “Bog Girl,” a revelatory story about first love, a young man falls in love with a two thousand year old girl that he’s extracted from a mass of peat in a Northern European bog. In “The Prospectors,” two opportunistic young women fleeing the depression strike out for new territory, and find themselves fighting for their lives. In the brilliant, hilarious title story, a new mother desperate to ensure her infant’s safety strikes a diabolical deal, agreeing to breastfeed the devil in exchange for his protection. The landscape in which these stories unfold is a feral, slippery, purgatorial space, bracketed by the void—yet within it Russell captures the exquisite beauty and tenderness of ordinary life. Orange World is a miracle of storytelling from a true modern master.
Also by Karen Russell:
Swamplandia!: This novel takes us to the swamps of the Florida Everglades, and introduces us to Ava Bigtree, an unforgettable twelve-year-old heroine. The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline, and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator wrestling theme park, formerly no. 1 in the region, is swiftly being encroached upon by a fearsome and sophisticated competitor called the World of Darkness. Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, has just died. Her sister, Ossie, has fallen in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, who may or may not be an actual ghost. And her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, who dreams of becoming a scholar, has just defected to the World of Darkness in a last ditch effort to keep their family business from going under. Ava’s father, affectionately known as Chief Bigtree, is AWOL; and that leaves Ava, a resourceful but terrified thirteen, to manage ninety eight gators as well as her own grief. Against a backdrop of hauntingly fecund plant life animated by ancient lizards and lawless hungers, the author has written a novel about a family’s struggle to stay afloat in a world that is inexorably sinking.