Book Review

V. S. Pritchett famously said a short story is “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.” The fourteen stories in Dorthe Nors’s short story collection, Wild Swims, contain echoes of that. Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra, Wild Swims is an intimate, revealing book, where the stories, at such a short length (often five or six pages), might initially feel like snapshots. But Nors ultimately achieves exquisite interiority in these narratives, burrowing so precisely into a character’s memory and revealing its ever-present nature in the mind.

The characters in Wild Swims are haunted the way some figures in Edward Hopper paintings are haunted, carrying a heavy and perpetual sense of aloneness. In this collection we find a man haunted by an intrusion in his marriage, a young woman door-to-door fundraising while haunted by the last cruel words of her lover, and a high school student on a ferry to England juggling cruelty and haunted by a friend’s dark truth.

So many of these stories operate on memory, portraying people in moments alone, caught in loops of rumination. The husband in “Inside St. Paul’s” is surprised by the temperature of a sarcophagus, simultaneously remembering his wife’s early affection and his own childhood slides across ice under bleachers at a hockey rink. The distraught woman poised outside her rented house in “The Fairground” fixates on the love she expected as a child, when “the happiness was as sweet as peppermint, and it endured.” The ultra-hygienic business traveler in “Between Offices” imagines the origin of the Mississippi River while remembering his mother’s inability to get the down off her fingers after plucking a chicken his father had killed. These aren’t strictly meditative moments, yet when characters shift from memory back into present life, the narrative isn’t necessarily transformed in expected ways. These aren’t stories leading to characters’ epiphanies triggered by memory, and only seldom does a courageous act of decision arise from these thoughts, but readers do understand the characters better, and that understanding is the real pleasure of this collection.

Where the wonder in experiencing a Hopper painting may come from imagining the story beneath the surface—the way we might imagine the story of anyone “glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing”—much of the wonder in Wild Swims comes from knowing characters deeply through such direct immersion in the interiority. The amount of time spent with them doesn’t matter; most stories span fewer than six pages, and often scenes set in the exterior seem fleeting. Many of the stories aren’t heavily dependent on outward movement, action, or dialogue. Instead, readers have access to recurring thoughts, patterns that characters return to or attempt to escape, associations they make when sifting through their encounters. And somehow the mystery of each person is revealed.

Many stories in Wild Swims place characters at moments of incredible internal wrestling. “In a Deer Stand,” for example, anchors readers in a dark moment when a husband with a possible broken ankle takes refuge in a deer stand, momentarily escaping the marriage that seems to be slipping away from him. The questions are immediate: What is the true nature of his marriage? Why did he leave? And does he intend to return? In the course of only four pages we understand, as he does, the likelihood of his marriage’s end. Through atmospheric details Nors brilliantly physicalizes his troubled ruminations—putting him, wounded, in a makeshift structure at twilight. There may be howling, and he doesn’t know if someone will find him. She writes: “He’s sitting in a deer stand, and something’s happened to the light. A mist is rising. It creeps toward him across the crowberry bushes. Which means the evening is closing in again.” These physical embodiments of his trouble keep the husband unsettled but also ground him in one place, creating the conditions for him to haunt himself with worried realizations. This is a surprisingly dramatic move for a story that focuses on one character in a dark moment alone.

Similarly, “Manitoba” also focuses on a lone man accepting his past while watching a team of scouts set up camp much too close to his isolated property. Again the story’s five pages focus on his lone experience, but in the movement through time and memory, readers receive just enough of his past longings and transgressions to understand his move toward isolation. Again Nors uses external circumstances to place enormous pressure on him; of course a man with a problematic interest in young girls would be haunted by a group of scouts on the periphery of his property. She writes: “And now he can see her, a girl scout in the summer darkness with fever-white hair”—and the moment that results contains both the horror of his predatory nature but also perhaps the tiniest bit of humor at its release. Finally, we understand him.

In a February 2021 conversation and reading through The Center for Fiction, Nors said she’s drawn to write characters who are “strong in profile but fragile”—those “stuck in that void inside themselves.” She joked that some characters she wouldn’t let into her house but would let into her narratives. “I do feel compassion for them,” she said over Zoom, “even the worst ones.”

In many of these very short narratives, characters show their worst, most reprehensible, or antisocial, or vulnerable light, and the narratives do treat them with the compassion of attention. Nors is also particularly good at creating single lines that essentially slice characters open, capturing them as if in dissection. In “Manitoba”: “He no longer has any wish to regulate his abnormalities, only to withdraw,” or the narrator in “Between Offices,” who says: “Between offices, I try above all not to be touched.” In “The Fairground,” Nors describes the distraught woman who we learn is holding a gas can: “She knows something has taken up residence in her.”

Of course not all the stories feature characters you’d want to keep outside your house. Some of them you’d want to let in. Many are simply navigating loss, the understanding of who they have become and how the world treats this version of themselves. There’s the older woman in “Pershing Square” who “was tired of the haggle for respect . . .”

In “By Sydvest Station,” Lina, while outwardly engaging with her friend Kirsten in a scheme to ask apartment-dwellers for money, inwardly returns repeatedly to a sharp line of rejection an ex-lover said. Even while asking strangers for money, Lina is caught in a loop of recurring thoughts. Interestingly, she’s aware of her isolation within her own mind: “True enough, Lina thinks to herself, musing that Kirsten for instance doesn’t know that he said what he said. In fact nobody knows that he told her that—that her love couldn’t be genuine.” The story leads to a decisive act, but doesn’t end before Lina returns to her original rumination.

Given that these stories are constructed with so many memories, and that characters navigate through time in sometimes circular or haphazard ways, it’s not surprising that the collection is so deft in its treatment of time and the way its characters experience it.

Memory and loss may be a refrain here, but as hopeless, restless, or down the characters may seem at times, that doesn’t mean the stories are without humor. Most, if not all, of the stories contain shades of humor, such as this line in “Manitoba”: “He has the sense that the village regards them as a miracle, but the miracle is noisy,” or the narrator in “Hygge”: “And then she’d said that business about my face—that she didn’t like it.”

Again and again in Wild Swims, Nors grants her characters a very interesting complexity, revealing what haunts them, and momentarily, pushing them into the light.

About the Reviewer

Corey Campbell’s short fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Story, the Gettysburg Review, Colorado Review, Nashville Review, and the anthology Buffalo Cactus and Other New Stories from the Southwest. She has received support from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the University of Houston, and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In 2021, she was awarded the Larry Levis Postgraduate Prize in Fiction from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.