I first came across Dorthe Nors when I read her novella, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. Her crisp, plain style coupled with an undercurrent of humour hit the spot for me. Wild Swims, exemplifies her rather idiosyncratic style, its apparently simple stories offering their readers much to think about.
Comprising fourteen pieces, each just a few pages long, Nors’ collection is prefaced with the advice ‘You can always withdraw a little bit further’, which seems entirely appropriate for out current covid-19 predicament and sets the tone nicely for what’s to follow. Many are stories about people disconnected from others either by design or circumstance, some of them longing to break out of their isolation, others glorying in it. In a Deer Stand a man wonders if his disparaging wife has called the police as he sits nursing what could be a broken ankle, contemplating another chilly night in a remote deer shelter. Manitoba sees an ex-teacher, divorced and living alone, who feels besieged by the teenage campers in a nearby field, wishing he could withdraw still further from his neighbours’ pity and inquisitiveness. Sometimes the dislocation is internal: in By Sydvest Station two friends collecting for charity get more than they bargained for but while one is shocked the other is oblivious as her partner’s cruel remarks replay endlessly in her head.
Several of the stories are unsettling, the most disturbing of which is the striking Honeysuckle about a man’s attraction to a young woman whose blindness lends her an odd absence, her face only coming alive during sex. Its counterpoint, On Narrow Paved Paths, treats death with a pleasingly light humour as Alice bustles around her dying neighbour who’s convinced he has a long life ahead of him, congratulating herself on a job well done after the funeral. My favourite, Hygge, is the tale of two old people, one of whom despises the other’s designs on him, whose black humour belies its title.
I’ve picked out just a handful of the most striking pieces but it’s hard to think of a dud in the entire collection. Funny, dark and often a combination of the two, these are quietly brilliant stories, admirable in their spare brevity, full of astute observations and just disconcerting enough to leave you turning them over in your mind. Best pay attention, small details can be telling yet easily missed.
As usual with the best short stories, quotable passages abound but here’s a small sample to whet your appetite:
Those long afternoons with flat fruit drink, peppermint candies, and Aunt Clara, who no longer fit her teeth Hygge
Whatever he did, and even what he thought, haunted her. She read signs in offhand remarks, she researched his past, his possible sorrows. The Fairground
Years ago, a psychologist she’d gone to had told her that, when she met a man, she should avoid being so clever. Pershing Square
They don’t understand that he’s alone either. It’s a pity he can’t find someone, they think. But the person that you pity is a person in your power. Manitoba
If you’re keen to get your hands on a copy of Wild Swims, you can order one direct from Pushkin Press. They’re a small publisher who will, no doubt, be struggling in these difficult times.
Pushkin Press: London 2020 9781782275503 128 pages Paperback