Book review: Karate Chop, by Dorthe Nors

23 11 2017

Dorthe Nors is a Danish writer (and former translator of Swedish crime novels) who has been awarded the P O Enqvist Literary Prize and was this year a finalist in the Man Booker International Prize. I’ve previously reviewed her novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal here.

KarateChop

Karate Chop (Kantslag, 2008, translated by Martin Aitken) is a collection of fifteen of Nors’ short stories, previously published in magazines like Harper’s, Boston Review, and The New Yorker. They are pithy, quirky, and often unsettling. There is, overall, less of the situational humour here that I found so appealing in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, but there is the same sense of closely-observed subterfuge, expressed here in a wide variety of scenarios. I’ll highlight a few:

In ‘The Buddhist’, a government official declares himself to be a Buddhist, so as to be a better person, and armed with a resultant sense of moral invulnerability, seeks to misrepresent himself into the position of CEO for a respected charity organisation. It’s whimsical, self-mocking, and sharp-edged.

In the cleverly-symbolic ‘The Big Tomato’, the narrator is working as a cleaner and home help for the wealthy Bangs. When the grocery delivery to their upscale New York apartment includes an unreasonably-large tomato, Mr Bang demands that the grocery send someone to take the tomato back, but the cleaner is the only person in the apartment when the delivery boy calls to collect it.

‘Karate Chop’ itself is a tale of an abusive relationship that is in its portrayal at once disturbingly intimate and clinically detached. Annelise is a special-needs teacher whose insight into human behaviour is not able to protect her from a string of doomed relationships with flawed men such as the bullying Carl Erik, father of one of the boys in her class.

‘Duckling’, one of the shortest pieces in the collection, is a getting-of-wisdom piece that catalogues a young girl’s awareness of the centrality of injustice as revealed through her duck-farmer father’s casual infidelity.

‘Hair Salon’, another vignette, engages principally by virtue of its close observation and offbeat introspection.

In several ways, Nors’ collection is reminiscent of another Scandinavian short-fiction collection I reviewed recently, Knots, by the Norwegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug. Both of them are filled with acerbic, concise stories edged with absurdity and with a cynicism for human motives. Nors’ fiction is, I would say, less barbed, more polished, less allegorical, though there is certainly some common ground.

Ultimately, I didn’t find Karate Chop quite as fulfilling as her Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, but it nonetheless contains some wonderful short-story writing, which I can certainly recommend to students of the form.

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