Childhood dreams are all well and good, but today we must move on from the youthful scenes of our previous stop and instead face up to the problems of middle age (which sounds awfully like my own life, actually…). Our Man Booker International Prize journey has brought us to Denmark and posed us a question: what do you do when you hit your forties and realise that life hasn’t turned out the way you expected? Well, according to today’s choice, you have to ignore the issues holding you back and finally… learn to drive.
No, that wouldn’t have been my first guess, either…
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors
– Pushkin Press, translated by Misha Hoekstra
(review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
Sonja, a woman in her mid-forties living in Copenhagen, has decided to finally go for her driver’s licence. A little late in life, you might think, but there are reasons for the delay:
She’s got an ear disorder. It’s an inherited condition from her mother’s side; none of them can maintain their balance when their heads are in certain positions. For a long time she thought she’d escaped it, but then it showed up, the positional dizziness.
p.9 (Pushkin Press, 2017)
However, her current teacher, the garrulous Jytte, is exactly the wrong person to help the sensitive Sonja, so she plucks up the courage to talk to Folke, the head of the driving school, about changing instructors – at which point he offers to teach her himself.
Somewhat of an introvert, Sonja has the misfortune to be surrounded by loud, headstrong people, and the larger-than-life Folke is just the latest addition to the group.. There’s her overbearing (and oversharing) masseuse, Ellen; Sonja’s best friend, Molly, a therapist with some rather dubious beliefs; even Sonja’s sister Kate can be a chatterbox (although she’d rather not talk to her sister if she can help it). As she struggles through her driving lessons, Sonja comes to realise that her life isn’t all it could be, and over the course of a few weeks, she decides that it might be time to reexamine the way she lives and make some major changes.
This was my first experience of Nors’ work, but I’d heard good things about her writing from those who have tried her double work Karate Chop/Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. This first novel to make it into English is a relatively short, light work, notable in part for its quirkiness. Where it works best is in the slightly off-beat, and embarrassing, scenes, such as the painfully candid chat of the massage sessions, the timid Sonja’s introduction to freeway driving while Folke puts on Rammstein for background music and, of course, the ‘meditation hike’, which I am very glad never to have experienced myself.
For the most part, Sonja is in a world of her own, and she’s generally happy to stay there, with most excursions causing her distress. Her work as a ‘literary’ translator, bringing (the fictional) Gösta Svensson’s Swedish crime bestsellers into Danish, is helpful here, allowing her to spend much of her time alone. Not every reader will have patience with her (certainly, some of our shadow judges found her annoying and lifeless), but I have a lot of sympathy for the introverted and can empathise with her reluctance to engage in conflict.
Ironically, for someone who makes her living with words, communication is one of Sonja’s major problems, and this is clear right from the initial, painful driving lesson with Jytte. Sonja shies away from confrontation, whether it’s with strangers or family members, and one of her major concerns is the rift with her sister. After finishing a call to her brother-in-law, Sonja has a sudden realisation:
So she must be sitting next to him on the couch, Sonja thinks. Kate must be sitting on the couch, not knowing what to say to me.
The conversation’s over, but it persists in Sonja like a downpour. A feeling of sorrow percolates down through her, seeping in and out of her internal organs, picking up pebble and gravel on its way. (p.93)
Even when she does later get Kate on the phone, her sister is evasive, keen to end the conversation quickly. It’s only towards the end of the book that we learn why.
Sonja’s communication issues, however, are part of a wider problem connected with her lack of a stable identity. Having left the country at the start of adulthood, not wanting to follow the usual predictable path of young people in her home village, there’s a sense that she’s trapped between two worlds. She may have left the country behind, but unlike Molly (who has reinvented herself completely), Sonja doesn’t really seem to have ever arrived in the big city. Her failure to learn to drive is symptomatic of her inability to adjust to her new life:
The human capacity for moving on is unique, thinks Sonja. Our adaptability’s remarkable. Except for mine. (p.166)
After two decades in the capital, it’s fair to ask exactly what she’s gained from leaving her old life behind.
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is written in an unusual style, both detached and calming. Nors uses the present tense throughout, and this has a distinct distancing effect. Not only does this keep us at arm’s length from Sonja, it also creates a barrier between Sonja and those around her, and the result is to make her a slightly enigmatic figure whose motivations are hard to figure out.
However, I’d have to say that I was far less impressed by the slate of Americanisms scattered throughout the book. Hoekstra is American, but there’s no US edition of the book as far as I’m aware, so I’m really not sure why the publishers went for such an American text (UPDATED 27/4: Via Twitter, Hoekstra said that Graywolf (in the US) and Pushkin signed up for an identical text, but the UK version has been quicker to arrive). It’s not the usual suspects that I’m talking about here (e.g. Americanised spelling and common words like ‘mom’ and ‘ass/asshole’), but the sheer volume of incredibly distracting, less common expressions. Over the course of a few pages, I noted down ‘cockamamie’, ‘in back of us’, ‘bugaboo’, ‘Nothing’s as cozy as thunder joe’ and ‘The carrousel’s a lazy Susan’ (I still have absolutely no idea what that’s supposed to mean). For a UK edition of a book, I find that quite astounding – and annoying.
Despite this, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a nice read overall, even if it’s unlikely to linger in the memory too long. The gentle mid-life crisis of a woman who struggles to upset anyone, it’s a story about realising it’s never too late to correct a mistake, even if it seems life has passed you by. Learning to drive? Well, that’s another matter entirely…
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Erm, no. This was a pleasant enough read, but nothing more. I’m not giving much away when I say that this is *very* unlikely to feature on our Shadow Shortlist (released next Thursday), and it was also at the bottom of the list of a group of prominent Goodreads reviewers. The Americanisms aside (that’s my own personal pet hate), Mirror, Shoulder, Signal simply doesn’t have anything that makes it stand out, and in a contest looking for the best translated book of the year, that’s a bit of a worry.
Why did it make the shortlist?
Well, I have a few theories:
1) As a sop by the majority of the judges to one or two others to ensure that one of the better books got through.
2) In terms of balance, a lighter book was required for the final choice, and this one was certainly pretty light.
3) Wanting two books by women among the final six, the judges chose this over Swallowing Mercury (let’s face it – Fever Dream wasn’t so much a nailed-on certainty as triple-welded to the shortlist with extra rivets…).
No, didn’t think so 😉
This year’s literary world tour is rounded off by a short trip from Denmark to Norway, one on which we’ll be swapping cars for boats. It’s another story centred around a female protagonist, albeit a much more strong-willed one, and we’ll get to know her very well over the course of our visit. A word of caution, though – those hoping for a relaxing island getaway will be sorely disappointed. You see, where we’re going, hard work is the only way to survive…