Wild Swims

Dorthe Nors

Pushkin Press, £9.99

Review by Malcolm Forbes

In 2017, Dorthe Nors’ literary reputation was given a boost this side of her native Denmark when her novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal made the shortlist of the Man Booker International Prize.

The book follows a forty-something woman called Sonja as she wrestles with life, nerves and driving lessons. “I can’t change gears,” she complains, and like many of Nors’ characters she tries her best to power on but ends up taking wrong turns and going nowhere fast.

In Wild Swims, Nors’ latest collection of short stories, we encounter more individuals struggling against inner turmoil or outside forces. In the first, and arguably the strongest tale, In a Deer Stand, a man lies in the middle of nowhere with a broken ankle and no means of contacting anyone. Tired of constantly losing battles and desperate for “the feeling of winning”, he decided a day or two ago to drive far away from his family. As he lies immobile, mulling over all he has left behind, he watches a rising mist and braces himself for another cold, damp night outdoors. “Sooner or later, somebody will show up,” he muses, but it is hard to share his optimism.

Other characters in other stories flounder overseas or in unfamiliar environments. Lina in By Sydvest Station has not so much lost her bearings as her moral compass. Still smarting from a stinging rebuke and a recent break-up, she overcomes her loss by pretending to work for a cancer charity and collecting donations from unsuspecting members of the public. Or as she puts it: “Ringing on strange people’s doorbells to demand love and respect.” However, when she rings Elsa’s doorbell she gets more than she bargained for.

Later, in Manitoba, Nors demonstrates her unique power to disturb with the vaguest of details. An ex-teacher who “resembles a normal man” and who “no longer has any wish to regulate his abnormalities” watches scouts pitch their tents in the field opposite his house – and then recalls a former pupil. The past also overlaps the present in the evocative, contemplative title story. Here, a woman’s nostalgic childhood memories of idyllic wild swimming lure her back in the water, but in a public swimming pool she quickly feels out of her depth.

Nors’ last collection of stories, Karate Chop, mostly revolved around female characters – mothers, daughters, wives and girlfriends on the brink of breaking down or cracking up. In contrast, Wild Swims focuses on the travails of both men and women. When they appear together, Nors blends in madcap antics and black humour. In Hygge, an elderly man joins a “senior club” to play chess, only to learn that the ageing female members have different plans for him: “as a bachelor I had to place my body at the disposal of all the cast-off women and their expectations.”

These truly are short stories. No tale exceeds seven pages. Some amount to mere sketches, snapshots or portraits. Many are fuelled by strange thoughts and idiosyncratic deeds. A few are maddeningly evasive and raise more questions than answers. And yet all are masterclasses in concision and most get straight to the nub of the matter, able to perfectly convey a mood, encapsulate an emotion or dramatise a predicament. Nors has described her stories as “hit-and-run-literature”, which aptly sums them up: she gets in there, does her thing, then gets out, often leaving us marvelling at her dexterity.

We also admire Nors’ prose, which is rich with quirky formulations and novel comparisons (“Baileys tastes of German rest stops and the corner of some party where nothing’s happening”).

Sharp, inventive, and consistently captivating, Nors’ tales are miniature wonders. Prepare to see the world in a refreshing new light.