The first of two entries on the shortlist by PhD students, Katherine Orr’s piece concerns Eleanor Francis, the British wife of an American astronaut freshly back from space. The couple’s opening exchange, as Eleanor greets her husband on his return, sets the tone for the rest of the story:

‘How are you?’ she said.

A lop-sided smile. ‘I’m A-OK.’

‘So what have you been up to?’

‘Stuff,’ he said. ‘You?’

‘Oh, stuff.’

All manner of possible sights and experiences are subsumed under the word ‘stuff’, as an indication that Eleanor and her husband (whose name we never learn) don’t know how to talk about what has happened. ‘The Human Circadian Pacemaker’ is an exploration of the ways in which the couple have become dislocated from life and each other. The rhythms of the astronaut’s body-clock are off, so he’s asleep in the daytime and awake at night; he also finds it easier to talk to his fellow-astronauts than to his wife (that Eleanor only knows his colleagues by their nicknames further emphasises her distance from that world). In her turn, the life Eleanor knew was disrupted when she had to move to the US; now that her husband has changed, she’s losing that one anchor she had. But, towards the end of the story, Eleanor finds a place and circumstance that may allow her to understand something of what her man has been through.

Orr handles her theme very well, right down to the fragmented structure of the narrative. The author’s biography in the back of the anthology says that she is working on a story collection; on the evidence of this piece, it should be interesting.

This is one of a series of posts reviewing the shortlist for the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award. Click here to read my other posts on the Award.