‘Disappearances’ by K J Orr

The story won the 2016 BBC National Short Story Award. It is a melancholic reflective story set in a Buenos Aires cafe. The narrator is a retired plastic surgeon with a distinguished career who one day feels compelled to visit a museum. His loneliness and lack of direction becomes apparent early on. 

What do you do when you stop? When you have been up and running for such a long time, what is it you do? When you’re used to a schedule that takes care of each second of the day? When there is no goal?

On finding the museum closed, he decides to have a coffee at a café in a nearby park where he notices the waitress. He is inexplicably drawn to her and begins to visit the cafe every morning. He is glad that his former career as a plastic surgeon is unknown to her. The story subtly alludes to the political disappearances in Argentina and the moral culpability of those who stood by and did not protest. 

I thrived. It didn’t matter who was in charge- throughout the decades, through all the ins and outs, the various shenanigans our country went through.

The story is an intricate play between the protagonist’s inner thoughts and the external world. Surprised by his own desire to create a new identity as a noble doctor helping the needy, and thus win over the waitress’s admiration, the surgeon’s identity is revealed when two rich society women who know him well visit the café and disrupt his newly invented persona. Caught off guard, the tension between the life he led and this desire to create a new identity forms a pivotal moment of the narrative. 

K J Orr writes in a nuanced, restrained style and the stories in this collection offer searing insights into the frailties of human nature. 

First published in Light Box, Daunt, 2016, and available to read here

‘Still Life’ by KJ Orr

Among the sumptuousness and flourish of a Dutch still life, there is often a memento mori: a game-bird draped lifeless over the edge of a lavishly set table; a fly on the blushing cheek of an apple; a tulip hanging limp-stemmed, shedding petals. In this story, a father struggles to make sense of his daughter’s stilled life when she is struck with an inexplicable sickness just as she should be coming into bloom. Like the Dutch masterworks, Orr’s ‘Still Life’ is all the more poignant for being so perceptively and pitilessly observed. 

First published in Light Box, Daunt Books, 2016

‘By the Canal’ by KJ Orr

In several ways I was one of the failures of the UEA MA. I drifted in at one end and drifted out at the other. I didn’t know what I was doing, and it was years before I published anything – unsurprisingly, because I hardly wrote anything. It was 20 years before I returned as a Royal Literary Fund writing fellow, which eventually led to a job on the faculty, which led to my occupying Angela Carter’s old office and Malcolm Bradbury’s old job. Katherine (KJ) Orr was in one of my earliest workshop groups, and stood out not just for the poise, elegance and often surprising violence of her short stories, but for her commitment to the short form. She certainly did know what she was doing. Many students begin the MA writing short fiction and, as they see it, ‘graduate’ to writing a novel. For Katherine, there is no graduation. The forms are different, and differently challenging. Eight years after she submitted ‘By The Canal’ to our workshop she included it in Light Box, her debut collection. It remains as enigmatic, and subtle, and shocking, as when I first read it, and the collection is a near-perfect vindication of Katherine’s dedication to the art of what she calls ‘shorts’.

In Light Box, Daunt, 2016. An excerpt was published in Cheque Enclosed, UEA, 2007

‘The Lake Shore Limited’ by KJ Orr

Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the chronotope (a knot of time and space which provides a fundamental building block of narrative representation) is one that hasn’t been nearly enough studied with relation to the short story. This is quite possibly because, disappointingly, Bakhtin himself completely ignores the form, and moreover, never hypothesizes a chronotope of the train. Such a chronotope is perfect for the idea of a private meeting space, a place for the telling of stories and sharing of secrets (and the not-telling of what is really important) while whizzing through time and space. But Bakhtin’s omission is no great loss, as Orr, with her customary skill and deftness, illustrates the principle perfectly.

First published in Light Box, Daunt Books, 2016