Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (transl. Misha Hoekstra): The loneliness of the learner driver

Cover imageI’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.

13 thoughts on “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (transl. Misha Hoekstra): The loneliness of the learner driver”

    1. I sped through this one, Annabel. There are some very funny moments in it but Sonja’s epiphany is a quiet joy.

  1. Her previous book didn’t appeal to me at all, but this one sounds more interesting. Nice to see it on the MB International longlist too, usually a good sign.

    1. It’s the only one from the list that I’ve read this year, Jacqui, but I enjoyed it very much. Sharp observation, wonderfully witty and a very pleasing ending.

  2. Dorthe Nors seems like an interesting writer, and this novella is an interesting concept. I have a Danish colleague who works in Copenhagen but comes from Jutland (which, she tells me, makes her a ‘peasant’) and I suspect she would relate to this book. I’ll have to ask her about it. It’d be great to see more Danish writers translated to English and promoted to the English speaking world. I’ve enjoyed every Danish writer I’ve encountered, though granted there haven’t been many.

    1. That’s the impression Nors gives of Jutland in this novel, Belinda. It’s part of the disconnect with which Sonja wrestles. Like you, I’ve not read many Danish writers although I very much enjoyed Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense. So much fiction in translation from that part of the world seems to be crime.

  3. This sounds like fun! Taking driving lessons at the age of 40 is a good set-up for a few laughs. I don’t particularly like to drive, but I’m always so grateful that I got my license when I was young!

    1. The driving scenes are very amusing, Naomi, particularly her driving instructor’s barked commands, brief interruptions in the litany of her family problems. Nors is very good on what it’s like to be a little out of step with everyone else, too, and Sonja’s moment of epiphany is lovely.

  4. Pingback: Wild Swims by Dorthe Nors (transl. Misha Hoekstra): Smart, astute and funny | A life in books

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