Danish writer Dorthe Nors has had two books translated into English so far, a book of short stories, Karate Chop, and a book containing two experimental novellas, So Much For That Winter.
The droll and compassionate Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the first of her five novels to appear in English, was published last year in the UK, and was shortlisted for The Man Booker International prize. It has just been released in North America by Graywolf.
Nors’ protagonist is Sonja Hansen, a lonely and “boxed in” woman in her forties, originally from a farming family in sparsely populated Jutland, now living in Copenhagen as a translator. Her main translating job is turning the work of a popular Swedish crime writer, Gösta Svensson, into Danish.
She is beginning to be bothered by the over the top violence that makes Gösta’s books so popular. “All that flesh decomposing; the angry ejaculations, the mutilated vaginas, the ritual adornment of evil,” Sonya thinks. (Nors herself, by the way, translates Swedish crime novels as well.)
Sonja is also recovering from a breakup from Paul, a fellow translator. She remembers meeting a psychic at a party who gave her an impromptu reading as she leaned against the fridge. “And in hindsight, the fortune teller had certainly been right that she’d be unhappy in love. First she met Paul. Then she fell in love. Then he chose a twenty-something girl who still wore French braids, and the rest of the fortune she repressed. How are you supposed to survive otherwise? she wonders, trying to remember the whole thing. But her memory won’t yield.”
Sonja’s relationship with her family is also complicated. She writes letters to her emotionally closed parents and older sister, Kate, that she always winds up throwing away. Sonja cares deeply about language, but finds that “it’s hard to find words to fit the people you love.”
Sonja suffers from “situational vertigo” and bad feet. She sees a massage therapist, Ellen, who is into New Age beliefs and tells Sonja her problems are spiritual rather than physical. Her best friend, Molly, is a psychologist who gives her inappropriate sexual advice.
Sonja is also learning to drive, hence the title. She trades her overbearing, aggressive and racist female instructor for a nice but neurotic married man her own age. They begin to flirt awkwardly during lessons but things end badly, mostly because the two of them are actually so alike.
Nors uses the driving lessons and Sonja’s inability to master shifting gears (“I can’t shift for myself,” she says) to comically symbolic effect. Sonja is definitely stuck in low gear with seemingly no way out.
Nors also contrasts Sonja’s life in the big city with her idealized reminiscences of her life in nature in her childhood on the farm. Again, Sonja is stuck between imagined innocence and her fear of the “adult” world that her sister, with her small-town life of job, husband and kids represents.
Sonja can be wilful. She twice ducks out of plans in the middle of things, but she is never comfortable with her choices. Nors handles Sonja’s loneliness and fears with humour and a great deal of empathy. No matter how oddly she behaves we are never invited to condescend to Sonja. In fact, one of the novel’s strengths is that we see Sonja’s many small victories for what they are long before Sonja does.
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a closely observed novel that flows effortlessly through Sonja’s mundane but humorous travails with real insight. I look forward to the appearance in English of more of Dorthe Nors’ novels.
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Dors (translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra) Graywolf Press, 192pp.