Wild Swims by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra

I’ve really enjoyed reading Dorthe Nors other works and was excited to read this collection. Wild Swims is such a beautiful title too and from the moment you dip your toe in, you are immersed in different lives all told at those moments of heightened awareness. Either a narrator is stuck up a deer stand with a damaged ankle and no phone (‘In a Deer Stand’) or they’re preparing to head out into the wilderness (‘Manitoba’) or they’re standing with a gas can staring out over a fairground contemplating what it means to be in love (‘The Fairground’ – where it isn’t the joyful flowers and rainbows you imagine as a child). 

Most of the stories feel like a brief immersion into one mind whose sense of present comprehension often involves a significant memory that somehow ties into that moment, that solidifies their sense of self-consciousness, their understanding of the world and themselves. These feel like stories in the classic Carver sense, tips of the ice-berg, Pritchard’s glimpses from the corners of eyes. 

Her use of imagery coheres with this too. A small thing seems to stand for how a character feels during a certain experience. The reflected sun spots on the ice of the Arctic tundra – the sun dogs as they are called in the language of the tundra – are the visible intangible rivals to the narrator’s ex, seen through the body of his mother whom she befriends on a writing retreat and who is so afraid of having her stories, her self written about (‘Sun Dogs’). The description of the image allows it to speak in ways the words can’t do alone. 

Many of the characters are lonely, or caught in uncomfortable relationships. Many of the characters are trying so very hard to make sense of things no matter how bizarre. The man in ‘Between Offices’ dreams of lying dead in a field as a bird pecks the flesh between his ribs and is refreshed by it. When he then lies down in a field near the MIssissippi river, literally between offices during which time he prefers to keep his distance from people and use hand sanitizer rather than touch soap and towels (which seems to imply his inability to truly live anywhere – scary thought given our current times), it makes sense to wait until the bird comes. 

The character from ‘The Freezer Chest’ is teased by the popular kid at school and writes about needing to shut the lid over her darkness: ‘It was as if a heavy lid had slammed shut within me. That’s how I recall it, a great lid, and beneath it a frozen darkness that was all my own. … I fell back into the dark and thought of things that were impervious – cement floors, plexiglass, ice packs – and that the safest way to avoid people like Mark was to seal yourself off, and then, when you were sealed off, it was about your face and getting it back into position, getting it to close over the darkness and everything you have stored inside.’ That sense of sealing your face over your darkness resonantes with the whole collection.

The other idea that weaves through the collection is that of the wolf, newly sighted, returning to landscape. All these characters have some need to touch nature and when they don’t – for example in ‘On Narrow Paved Paths’ – there is the feeling that this confines and diminishes them. The wild is out there, it is within us, it is waiting for us to acknowledge it, climb in and be swept along with the current. 

A very pleasing and quick read, these stories are masterful examples of the short story art. I’ll be reviewing What Doesn’t Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival edited by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska next.

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