By Dorthe Nors. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. Graywolf, 112 pp, softcover
Short-story writers have a way of sneaking up on you. Take Denmark’s Dorthe Nors. You’ve probably never heard of her, in large part because Karate Chop is her first book to be translated into English (she’s previously published five novels in Danish)—but her individual stories have already appeared in topnotch American magazines like the New Yorker and Harper’s. When they’re assembled in one place, however, the cumulative effect of Nors’s work is even stronger. These 15 meditations on nature, violence, and family are sure to leave at least a bruise or two.
The stories are all quick but sharp, combining dark humour and a fascination with the unknowable inner workings of even the most seemingly humdrum people. Nors’s narrators are unreliable, but in ways that require the reader’s active interrogation of the text. That’s on full display in the collection’s two absolute KOs: “The Buddhist”, in which a disaffected government official bluffs his way into a new religion and a new job, and “The Winter Garden”, where a young girl slowly reassesses her father in the wake of his divorce. This level of tension and narrative uncertainty is very difficult to get right, but Martin Aitken’s nimble translation does it justice and then some.
Nors also has an excellent sense of proportion. She lets all kinds of fascinating details linger around the periphery, giving the reader glimpses of a larger fictional world that always stays just out of reach. “Female Killers”, for instance, is ostensibly about a man who stays up late reading about women like Aileen Wuornos (the serial killer who inspired the Charlize Theron film Monster) on the Internet. But the story’s opening and closing sentences alter the frame, very subtly, to include the man’s girlfriend; the story concludes with him taking off his shoes, “so as not to make a noise when he goes up the stairs to her”. Why end things this way? I’ve been turning that question over in my head, with relish, for days.
Given her résumé, it’s entirely possible I’ve come across one of Nors’s stories in a magazine, only to flip right past it. After spending a day entranced by Karate Chop, I won’t make that mistake again.