Don’t you just love that jacket? Having sounded off about the ghastliness of the Aren’t We Sisters? cover a few weeks ago I had to mention it. Brightly coloured, eye-catching and surprisingly well suited to what’s inside it’s perfect, well for me at least. This Should be Written in the Present Tense is a quiet, low-key, curiously gripping novel in which events are so rare they stand out like the vibrant streaks of colour that adorn its jacket.
It’s narrated by twenty-year-old Dorte who has moved into a bungalow just outside Copenhagen where she has a place at university. Somehow she never gets around to buying any curtains, just as she never seems to get around to attending lectures. It’s not as if she has much else to do – she sleeps much of the day, is insomniac at night, remembers her relationship with Per and her welcome into his house by his parents, then her life with his cousin Lars. She talks to her Auntie Dorte for whom she’s named, phones her parents, goes shopping, enjoys the kindness of strangers and bumps into an old study group colleague. Aimless and adrift, she knows what she should be doing but just can’t seem to do it. Life, it seems, is something that happens to other people.
I’m left scratching my head as to quite why this book, full of prosaic exchanges and torpor, is quite so gripping while at the same time hoping that Martin Aitken is busy at work translating Helle Helle’s other novels – she’s one of Denmark’s most respected modern novelists, apparently, but this is the first of her books to be translated into English. There’s a hint in the title and on the first page that Dorte is the one writing the novel but this isn’t a tricksy book full of meta-fictional cleverness, although perhaps it’s me that’s not clever enough to have spotted it. Instead it’s a book that gets under your skin – its drifting, melancholic narrator curiously engaging and oddly compelling.