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“A near perfect example of how the short story works”
By Benjamin Cassidy
The current status of the short-story in the fiction market might best be explained by the fact that the most notable way to become recognised amongst the literary establishment is to win a big competition, or at least make the short-list. That is exactly what author K.J Orr has managed to do, by scooping first prize in the BBC National Short Story Award, which has just run for the tenth year. Her story, titled ‘Disappearances’, is set in Buenos Aires and concerns a retired plastic surgeon, his social-circle, and his feelings about a waitress, that develop as the story plays out.
Previous winners of the BBC Short Story Award include such prestigious names as Booker-winning novelist Hilary Mantel. Though Orr has been on a previous year’s short-list and has also had stories published in Sunday Times Magazine, The Irish Times, and The Dublin Review, the fact that she is a debut author, only releasing her first collection Light Box in February 2016, has created a fervour around her, drawing unprecedented levels of attention to her work. This poses the question on everyone’s minds: what is it about her story that did what the other entries didn’t?
Competition judge Kei Miller described Orr’s story as “a near perfect example of how the short story works.” Compliments such as this are not to be taken lightly, with such high profile competition, year in year out, with previous winners, including last year’s winner Jonathon Buckley, once again entering their work. Di Speirs, BBC Radio 4 presenter of the coverage of the competition and long-term champion of the short-story spoke of how “KJ Orr’s precision and clarity, her ability to expose a life in a line and to induce sympathy and disdain, linger long after reading the final paragraph.”
To be selected as top, out of 478 entries, the story must have had a memorable impact. So, how is Orr’s story a “near perfect example” of the short story form? One of the instantly notable things about ‘Disappearances’ is that the role of narrator (in this case her main character, who can loosely be labelled the story’s protagonist – though doesn’t wholly conform to the traditional description) is expertly considered. The choice of first person can sometimes be detrimental to the plot development and the emotional bond with the reader. This story, however, is every bit the character’s tale, and reads that way. The short paragraphs show his discomfort in revealing how he feels, creating a sense of stilted emotion. Orr creates a sense of the narrator only coming to terms with events as they happen. With such deft detail, it is clear to see how her “precision and clarity” can expose a “life in a line”. The observations about the waitress which the narrator regales are made realistic by the fact that he was once a plastic surgeon. Orr knows her character. More than this though, she knows what motivates him, and why he does what he does or says what he says at any one point. It is this kind of sensitivity delivered within her writing that elevates her own status from mere author to fellow master-surgeon. She uses her structural awareness and punchy-prose to carve out a poignant narrative, with her intellect and talent acting as scalpel, and other implements needed to perform a very frangible operation. She manages to do so with exacting and precise results.
KJ Orr’s debut collection Light Box, which includes the winning entry ‘Disappearances’, is available now from Daunt Books, priced £9.99.