Written in 2008 but only this year available in English translation, Danish writer Dorthe Nors has crafted a book of short stories that feels both off balance and familiar. The fifteen stories in Karate Chop are indeed quite short – most no more than 4 or 6 pages – but they capture a mindset that jabs and dances like a lightweight boxer.
The main characters in these stories are ordinary, but they are far from mundane. Sometimes they are the main players in the action, sometimes they are inert observers, but they all are deeply affected by what might at first glance seems like pedestrian life, whether it be ruminations on herons that roost along public ponds or following a mother who is suffering from a depressive “fear of life”. Sometimes the life is indeed pedestrian, at other times the characters’ removed observations make it so.
The stories often recount tragic or poignant events, but without drama or even judgment. The story that impacted me the most was the title story, “Karate Chop”, which depicted in very non-sensational prose a woman in an abusive relationship. (“Maybe that was why he hit her? Maybe her bruises were just ways of coloring outside the lines?”) This detachment (not coldness, no) is something many of us feel and wonder about, but, like the characters in the stories, cannot find the urgency to act upon. The protagonists’ wanderings of the mind, the lack of need to put events in order but to merely observe, could be frustrating in longer works, but in these short offerings, are highly effective and feel intensely personal. “Karate Chop” may indeed be a slender volume, but it pulls at you, like a strong undercurrent on an otherwise seemingly peaceful river.