I’ve not come across Dorthe Nors’ writing before although the Guardian included her Karate Chop/Minna Needs Rehearsal Space as one of their best books of 2015. It’s possible I dismissed Karate Chop out of hand, not yet having seen the light with regard to short stories, but if Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is anything to go by I may well seek it out. This short, funny novel sees Sonja attempting to learn to drive, something she feels she really should have done some time ago, while failing to find a place for herself in the world.
Sonja’s in her forties, a translator of popular Swedish crime fiction. She’s from Jutland but has lived in Copenhagen for many years. She lives alone, frets about why her elder sister Kate seems to avoid her calls and often thinks about her childhood – hiding in her father’s rye field despite strict orders not to, watching the whooper swans flying through the endless skies. Her driving instructor hurls incomprehensible commands at her while providing her with a furious running commentary on her own life and its many problems. Her flaky masseuse attributes every tense muscle to spiritual problems, insisting on the power of ‘medical intuition’. When she finally gets the nerve up to change her driving instructor she constantly frets that the new one will find out about her ‘positional vertigo’ and disqualify her from taking her test. One day, on her way to a concert with a friend who doesn’t seem the least bit interested in her, she helps a timid old woman and has an epiphany.
Nothing much happens in Nors’ sharp, very funny novella. Sonja stumbles from perplexity to perplexity, occasionally making stands, constantly finding herself out of step with everyone else. When her masseuse invites her on a walk she avoids the woodland glade meditation session. She heads off the pass she’s convinced her new driving instructor is about to make with free books for his wife when he’s simply relieved to be teaching some one his own age. Nors takes a few nifty swipes at Scandi crime: despite occasional trips to Sweden Sonja has ‘never stumbled across a corpse over there. It’s curious when you think about how many people die a violent death in Ystad alone’. Deftly combining wit with acute observation Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is essentially about loneliness, about not fitting in when it seems everyone else does. Its cover perfectly sums it up: shutting her skirt in the door is precisely the kind of think Sonja would do. Congratulations to both Nors and Hoekstra for their well deserved appearance on this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist.