Minna Needs Rehearsal Space and Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors

Minna Needs Rehearsal Space is a novella published by Pushkin Press in one volume alongside the collection of short stories, Karate Chop, both translated from Danish by MIsha Hoekstra. It is a beautiful book, elegantly and sparsely printed so that each title has its own cover requiring a reader to turn the book upside down to read the other work. Even without the trappings however, this is a striking and beautiful volume of work that stays inside your mind long after you’ve finished reading.

Minna Needs Rehearsal Space is written in short sentences laid out like poetry in which Minna strives to rediscover her voice. She is a composer without fame struggling to maintain a relationship with a journalist. She needs rehearsal space and hasn’t been able to make a loud noise in weeks.

It would be easy to imagine finding the layout irritating. The short forms of social media messages, its tweets and texts, feel as if they have influenced Nors’ style but rather than inspire something that reflects a short attention span they demand attention, acting like vignettes that evoke a precise moment in order to convey a wider ongoing present and together they build a conscious flow that is Minna and her experience of the world. It is possible to pick out sentences –

Minna turns her face toward the sun.

Minna’s chest arches over her heart. (p41)

– but they work best together. Minna’s story is one of creative longing, of obsession even, and it is very powerful.

Karate Chop is just as powerful but written very differently. The characters of these stories speak of acts that fall under the radar, behaviours that are shocking not because they don’t happen but because they usually remain hidden. The snide abuse of relatives (‘Mother, Grandmother, and Aunt Ellen’), the kindnesses of men who live adulterous lives (‘Duckling’), the moment in which a parent stops being god-like (‘The Winter Garden’), all those obsessions and behaviours for which we have no straight-forward answers.

The title story typifies what is best about these short stories in its use of a metaphor about colouring in [it makes me wonder how this would extrapolate out into the latest adult colouring craze…]. Annelise often finds herself in abusive relationships and while she is considering her current situation she looks at her lover’s hand:

It looked gentle lying there. A little red across the knuckles, but there was nothing wrong with its outline, especially not if Annelise put her eyes slightly out of focus. She considered its shape and thought about the lines; everything you wanted to see but which in actual fact was not there. Everything that should have been but which never became, and this was important to understand. Not only in respect to herself. It was something she could put to use with the children at school. She recalled that as a child she had been heavily seduced by the black line drawings in coloring books. They were done so well she always wanted to fill the empty spaces with crayon and felt-tip. Behind that burning desire to color in the drawings lay the creative human’s longing to give life, and, not least: to make the drawings her own. In a way, it was like stealing preconceived ideas. The drawing could never be lifelike, and for that reason you reached a point where you began to draw outside the lines. (p73)

The idea of human relationships being about filling in the lines or drawing outside of them has a revelatory quality whose exploration is best read in the story itself, but I’m sure you can see its appeal; her stories have the quality of gems with multiple facets that reflect the light and the dark.

Clearly, I enjoyed Minna Needs Rehearsal Space and Karate Chop a great deal and would recommend it highly. It’s a quick but evocative read that forces the reader to think beyond its pages. Thank you to my Secret Santa who bought it for me for Christmas.

Next week (well this week), I’m reading the comic Bitch Planet, Book One: Extraordinary Machine by Deconnick and De Landro.