K J Orr’s short story credentials are impressive, she’s been published in many literary magazines I admire and won the BBC Short Story Prize in 2016. This is her first collection of short stories but I doubt it will be her last.
She is a writer of skill and confidence, deftly handling her subjects with lightness and precision: they vary from Russian children walking across a frozen lake, a teenager girl at the beach, two lovers walking along a canal to a business man escaping his mundane life.
Mundane life is perhaps a good start for this collection, K J Orr takes everyday situations and turns them into stories of intrigue, mystery and as a way to map out human experience and character.
The opening story (and one of the best) The Lake Shore Limited takes such a mundane subject as it’s plot: a man is travelling by train and meets an older woman who has lost her husband many years ago. A simple story, the man is trapped with the woman, unwittingly drawn into her life and her journey. Orr skillfully knows how much to reveal and when, drip-feeding the reader information until suddenly you realise this is a short story about grief, but not just one kind as you think, not only old, lived with grief but also grief that is fresh and shocking and gently heartbreaking.
Another startling story Rehearsal Room again turns an everyday situation, a company of actors and a man who comes to clean their room, into a sharp examination of human character and possessiveness. About what happens in a group when a once-loved outsider becomes something of a burden. How a shocking and sudden event can occur seemingly out of nowhere, but revealed through carefully measured build up, so subtle the reader hardly notices.
KJ Orr is a writer who understands what the short story form can do and its limits: what stories it can tell and the lives it can reveal. She knows how much to show and how much to conceal and she never outstays her welcome. Orr is unafraid to simply end her stories, sometimes somewhat abruptly and often without resolution: this is life, she seems to be saying, here is a bit of it and now, here, without any warning, it ends.