‘The Wadden Sea’ by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken

I should probably pick Nors’s first story for the New Yorker, ‘The Heron’, because then I could link to it. That’s the one with “young women with their stony faces and big baby carriages. They always come in flocks, great flocks of mothers, and they stir up bad feelings in one another, so none of them will even look at you when you walk past”, which you’ll remember every time you see group of buggied mums in a park. But I’m going for ‘The Wadden Sea’, which closes Nors’s collection, Karate Chop, for its sheer, devastating bleakness. A mother, escaping depression, alcoholism, fear of life, moves to Sønderho, miles from Copenhagen, with her young daughter, for the pure air and authenticity of the Wadden Sea. But it turns out that “fear of life” managed to get on the train from Copenhagen, sail on the ferry, knock on the door, and refuse to leave. “It crawled into bed with my mother and went to the store for new supplies each day and then shut itself in and piled itself up in the shed so that after a few months I had to call my grandmother.” After six, sparse pages, I’m still not sure what happens at the end, which would bother me more if Nors herself, who I interviewed for the erstwhile Independent on Sunday, hadn’t told the Paris Review that the story’s last line – “She said the Wadden Sea was an image in the mind’s eye, and that she was glad I wanted to go with her into it.” – was a puzzle.

Collected in Karate Chop, Pushkin Press, 2017

‘The Winter Garden’ by Dorthe Nors, translated by Martin Aitken

This is a quiet story by the Danish writer Dorthe Nors, weaving together a public death and a private loss. A popular comedian Dirch Passer dies on the 3rd of September 1980, the same day that the narrator’s parents decide to tell her that they are divorcing. Her mother moves in with a new partner who has two children of his own so the narrator decides to go and live with her father. Things go well at first. The father, who had no hobbies when he was married, starts growing succulents in the little conservatory attached to his flat – the winter garden of the title – and father and daughter like to sit there in the evenings and talk. Then they are invited over to the house of a divorcee he knows from work, a woman called Margit. It’s the same day, the narrator tells us, that Dirch Passer’s health card would have expired had he not died on stage of a heart attack. Margit has a son who glowers sullenly at the father and sticks his tongue out. The narrator realises that “I was the only person who thought that my father was special. It was only my way of looking at him that stopped him from being just some ordinary guy of no importance.” And so she cuts up her feelings and hides them under the table, in the houseplants, in “the ugly mouth of [Margit’s] son”. And by the time they drive home again, her father is nothing special any more. 

First published in English in A Public Space 12 and available to subscribers to read online here. Collected in Karate Chop, Pushkin Press 2008