Light Box by KJ Orr review: an illuminating debut
You don’t need to be an astronaut to feel out of sorts with the world is the prevailing message of this lovely collection of stories
‘I’m fine. Watch me.’ He moved from the doorway one foot in front of the other, arms out at either side, eyes fixed on her. Midway across the room he toppled and then lurched, catching his hip on the table. Things flew. Milk dripped on to the floor.”
An American astronaut back home after a mission is finding it hard to adjust to life on earth. His wife buys him a light box, hoping to reset his body clock. They both have been warned what to expect: “The human circadian pacemaker had undergone change . . . His rhythms were all off. His body clock was shot.”
Changes in rhythm are central to KJ Orr’s highly accomplished debut collection, Light Box. Just as the titular machine provides “a shock of bright white light” that makes the astronaut’s wife squint, the English author’s stories have a vividness and directness that leave the reader reeling.
Accelerated aging, cardiovascular decline and packages of powered space food are some of the known pitfalls of life as an astronaut. Characters back on earth are also grappling with their respective pits, realising too late the traps they have built for themselves.
In the desperately sad The Ice Cream Song is Strange, newly-retired businessman Morris jets off to Japan on a whim. Broken into sections – jet-lag, morning, evening – Morris’s clinical observations detail the increments of his leisure time in painstaking detail. He excavates the dreaded question: what happens when a person stops? “You scrub your skin. You sit on low stools and wash yourself.”
As Morris’s features become distorted in the alien landscape of a five-star hotel, it is another face that haunts him, the child he rejected years before, a face that is now “unravelled, a confused composite of a thousand other faces”.
Need to escapeAs well as momentous change, the need to escape is a recurring theme. The narrator of the captivating opening story, The Lake Shore Limited, buys a ticket to nowhere, running from his wife’s illness, from the hundreds of private moments no one else can understand: “Her reading on the daybed with a look of the deepest, most peaceful concentration; or banging pots together in their kitchen in the morning to wake him up . . . They wouldn’t see any of that. He would rather not see it himself.”
All of the narrators in the 11 stories are taking stock in some fashion, weighing up the past or trying to imagine a future. Orr takes the reader across continents – from New York to London, Buenos Aires to the Russian wilderness – offering assured insights no matter the landscape.
In Blackout, a young man with a degenerative eye condition goes about making the best life possible for himself. The Shallows, a foreboding coming-of-age tale, sees Frankie recall her teenage periods in excruciating detail while on a trip to the seaside that will change her life forever.
In Disappearances, a retired plastic surgeon allows a waitress to conjure up an image of his past that bears little resemblance to reality.
From London, Orr is a graduate of the creative writing programme at the University of East Anglia and her work, including versions of certain stories in Light Box, has appeared in publications such as The White Review, the Sunday Times Magazine, Lighthouse and Dublin Review.
Orr has also been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Prize and the Bridport Prize. Her stories recall those of the American short story writer Laura van den Berg – unromantic honeymooners, familiar situations made surreal, expectations continually upended. In their searing analysis of human behaviour and affinity with the natural world, light in particular, they also invite comparison to Danielle McLaughlin’s recent collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets.
The Inland Sea brings the perspective of two schoolboys in icy Russia, Pyotr and younger brother Golom, whose nickname after the golomyanka fish is given to him by an Irish immigrant. Hero-worshipping Dec-Lan and his tales of adventure, the boys long to be men. They bunk off school and trek across the ice, confident that it won’t crack for months: “There is a fissure an inch, two inches wide, tracing a path across the ice ahead of them. ‘It’s nothing,’ Pyotr says. ‘It’s just a crack.’ They take a step closer.”
The poignant Still Life sees a father trying to coax his daughter out of depression, watching helplessly as she gives up college, comes home and creeps “like an old woman towards her childhood bed”.
Her “expressionless oval” and inability to use her hands cement this reversal to a childlike state. Her father reads her fairy tales in bed, moving on to engineering manuals, hoping to school her in practicalities that might one day draw her back to life.
That you don’t need to be an astronaut to feel out of sorts with the world is the prevailing message of this lovely, illuminating debut collection.