Review by Rupert Dastur
In her debut collection, K J Orr gifts us eleven beautiful short stories that are written with such poise, delicate precision, and intimacy that it feels as if one has pressed an ear against the skin of the book and heard a beating heart nestled inside.
From first to last, these short stories point to a talent who knows her characters as fully as a mother knows her children. Orr leads us to doors which open up onto the personal, private, and profound landscape of ordinary people trying to comprehend their often unsettling and sad lives.
Although there is no explicitly unifying theme, there are several features which make the collection a pleasingly coherent whole.
Notably, the stories are largely set in contemporary times, albeit diverse locations. While Orr, like many writers, tends to avoid the daily realities of social media and technology, the settings, the people, and the mores are very much rooted in the twenty-first century.
The pieces generally avoid the fantastical, the supernatural, or the downright strange. In a time when many short stories wander into myth and legend to avoid the pedestrian, Orr impressively demonstrates that sticking to the pavement still makes a great deal of sense. This is not to imply that there isn’t drama, or spectacle – there is plenty to sustain plot-addicts – it is simply to say that the short stories in Light Box revolve around the universal difficulties of loss, illness, and estrangement.
As suggested above, a focus on human relationships is the main glue that sticks these short stories together. A mundane statement, perhaps – after all, what kind of short stories aren’t about human relationships? However, in this instance, this assertion is entirely appropriate as Orr’s extraordinary mining of the minds and lives of her characters is shown on a level which is unusually sincere and personal.
Other similarities between the short stories identify the collection as a complete product of careful craft and creative skill. With regularity, the short stories avoid easy resolution, aiding that taught mood of things unsaid. While not luxurious in description, the language is spare and each sentence is utilised to full effect and when we are given a poetic flourish, it seems all the more significant; this tendency successfully contributes to the atmosphere of the short stories and the collection overall. Orr’s eye strikes me as almost filmic in capturing scenes in terms of the surface detail and depiction, as well as the emotional undertow illuminated through seemingly minor, but significant action. All these points are exemplified in ‘The Human Circadian Pacemaker’ in which an astronaut returns to earth and his wife, and the couple attempt to return to normalcy: ‘He raised the two glasses of champagne and looked at her over the small golden explosions.’
The sense of trying to understand one’s life and the people in it, is a pervading sentiment in this short story collection. It is felt in the first short story ‘The Lake Shore Limited’ as a man journeys away from a wife cocooned in hospital; in ‘Rehearsal Room’ in which the narrator confesses her escalating hate for a mysterious cleaner, in ‘Still Life’ as a father deals with his daughter’s catatonic state; the list goes on. Although irresolution is a large feature of these short stories there is also the occasional truth, perhaps even epiphany that seeps into the prose as the protagonists’ understanding deepens or changes over the course of the narratives. In ‘Disappearances’ for example, the main character notes that ‘it is odd how places local to us can remain invisible for so long – until one day they simply present themselves’. In ‘Rehearsal Room’ we’re given this striking observation:
‘He was one of those people you see every day and start to believe you know when in fact you don’t. you have the arrogance to believe they’re part of the fabric of your day because you exchange a glance or a smile.’
Meanwhile, in the last agonizing short story that reminded me of the film Anololasia (2015) directed by Charlie Kaufman, the main character, Morris, muses over a long-gone chance at love:
‘There had once been an opportunity there for care. The face he can’t hold on to, the face that has unravelled, a confused composite of a thousand other faces – this face that he seeks; he has to give it up, because he chose to give it up a long time ago and has lost his right to it.’
This tone and subject-matter is all part of the introspective, pensive style of writing Orr has mastered so thoroughly.
A few further observations: I appreciated the dropping of narrative hooks and the drip-feed of information that pushes the narrative and the reader along the page. It is a skilful cook who prepares just enough food to leave those at the table ready for the next course and, by the end, looking forward to the following meal. I also enjoyed the occasional play with structure, as with ‘The Lake Shore Limited’ and the intermittent risk-taking, as with the sudden shift at the end of ‘Disappearances’ which switches from a traditional first person account to a direct command to the reader: ‘Pay attention. This is important’ interrupting the flow in an interesting, unexpected way.
The title, Light Box, comes from the fourth short story in the collection, ‘The Human Circadian Pacemaker’ and it refers a machine which shines light at various intensities. The wife of the astronaut buys it to help her husband adapt to the various time and light phases of earth. Here’s the passage in full:
‘Before the mission the astronauts had used bright lights to adjust for the flight, to help reset the body clock. She had got a light box for his return. She had put it in the corner of their room, experimented with levels. At the highest it emitted a shock of bright white light that made her squint.’
The passage nicely reflects the collection – a sense of the before and after and the ramifications of change; the intimacy of the relationship of him and her, the mention of the bedroom; the underlying story being told through metaphor and suggestion; the shock of revelation and encounters, and the need to ‘adjust’ to the situation. There are numerous paragraphs like this, all working hard to illuminate these worlds for the reader and once we’ve had the fortune to glimpse these lives, our own may seem no less easier, but certainly a little lighter; we become aware that we’re not alone in the struggle to find our way through the dark situations that we all, at some points in time, traverse.
Orr should be congratulated on a tremendous short story collection. Daunt Books also deserve applause for publishing this new voice, taking the step with short stories, and producing a thoroughly quality book.
Light Box is a triumph.
Rupert Dastur is a writer and editor. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he specialised in Modernism and the Short Story, leading to the creation of TSS with the aims of furthering discussion, interest, and development of the form. He has supported several short story projects and anthologies, is the Head of Development at Khona Productions. His work is in / forthcoming in The Flash Fiction Review, A3 Review, and Bath Flash Fiction Anthology 2016