Tag Archives: Dorthe Nors

Books to Look Out For in April 2020: Part Two

Cover imageThis second instalment of potential April goodies begins with Kirstin Innes’ Scabby Queen which spans over half a century following the career of Clio Campbell who kills herself three days after her fifty-first birthday whereupon she becomes a posthumous heroine for our age. Taking in the miners’ strike, an anarchist squat, the Genoa G8 protests, the poll tax riots and Brexit ‘Scabby Queen is a portrait of a woman who refuses to compromise, told by her friends and lovers, enemies and fans’ according to the publishers which sounds very promising to me.

Set in Japan, Stephanie Scott’s What’s Left of Me is Yours has an intriguing premise: the employment of an agent to seduce a spouse in order to provide grounds for divorce in the employer’s favour. Based on a real case, Scott’s debut tells the story of one such agent who falls in love with his target. She moves in with him after her divorce, unaware of what he’s done. Truth will out, though, as it so often does. Wakaresaseya, as it’s known, is a thriving industry in the Japanese underworld, apparently.

Gangsters are feature in Juan Pablo Villalobos’ I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me narrated by a Mexican student with the same name as its author. He’s about to take up a scholarship in Spain when he’s kidnapped in a bookshop and tasked with inducing the daughter of a corrupt politician to fall in love with him in order to save his cousin’s life. ‘Exuberantly foul-mouthed and intellectually agile, this hugely entertaining novel finds the light side of difficult subjects – immigration, corruption, family loyalty and love – in a world where the difference between comedy and tragedy depends entirely on who’s telling the joke’ says the blurb which sounds splendid to me.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut collection How to Pronounce Knife is about the daily lives of refugees and immigrants, from an ex-boxer turned Cover imagenail salon worker to a mother and daughter harvesting earthworms by night. ‘Uncannily and intimately observed, written with prose of exceptional precision, the stories in How to Pronounce Knife speak of modern location and dislocation, revealing lives lived in the embrace of isolation and severed history – but not without joy, humour, resilience, and constant wonder at the workings of the world’ promise the publishers of what sounds like an excellent set of short stories. That title, alone, is enough to make me want to read this one.

C. Pam Zhang’s debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, is one of those debuts garlanded with so much praise from literary household names it must feel like a mixed blessing for a new author. So much to live up to. In this case Sebastian Barry, Emma Donoghue and Daisy Johnson are just three of the writers who love Zhang’s book. The story of two orphans carrying their father’s body on their backs as they walk through a bleak landscape looking for somewhere to bury him, it’s described asa sweeping adventure tale, an unforgettable sibling story and a remarkable novel about a family bound and divided by its memories’. I have to confess, it’s that catalogue of starry names that’s swung this one for me.

Which may also be the case with Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviours, much praised by Sarah Moss, one of my favourite authors. Seven-year-old Nainora Flores is saved from drowning by sharks prompting his impoverished family to see it as a sign from the Hawaiian gods but as he and his siblings grow up, economic reality bites and they’re forced to look for work on the US mainland. ‘With a profound command of language, Washburn’s powerful debut novel examines what it means to be both of a place, and a stranger in it’ according to the publishers.

Cover ImageI first came across Dorthe Nors when I read her novella, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. Her crisp, plain style coupled with an undercurrent of humour hit the spot for me. I’m hoping for more of that with her short story collection, Wild Swims, which seems to be all about not quite connecting or choosing not to connect by the sound of it. ‘Dorthe Nors shines a light into forgotten corners and conjures darkness where it’s least expected. Her characteristic sharpness and sense of humour is ever-present, catching us when the melancholy threatens to come too close. Love, cruelty, friendship, and loneliness are all here, in these stories that brim with life’ promise the publishers whetting my appetite further.

That’s it for April’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your attention and if you’d like to catch up with the first batch it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

 

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2018: Part Two

Cover imageI’ve read just one of this second selection of May paperbacks – Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal which picked up a bit of attention when it was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. It sees fortysomething 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. 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 until one day she has an epiphany.

With her pleasing eccentricities, Sonja wouldn’t be out of place in one of the seven stories comprising Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women if past performance is anything to go by. Each of them bears many of the hallmarks no doubt familiar to fellow fans – ’vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles’ – promises the publishers who also quote the author on writing short stories in the book’s blurb: ‘I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.’

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart will no doubt be rather more sombre than Murakami’s stories. It moves between revolutionary Zanzibar in the 1960s and 1990s London, following writer Paradise Salim whose happy childhood is disrupted by his father’s departure from his brother’s house where the family has been living. ‘Evoking the immigrant experience with unsentimental precision and profound insight, Gravel Heart is a powerfully affecting story ofCover image isolation, identity, belonging and betrayal, and is Abulrazak Gurnah’s most dazzling achievement’ say the publishers. Gurnah’s By the Sea remains one of the most powerful depictions of exile I’ve read.

I’m hoping for some light relief with Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation after that. It’s about modern marriage, a second marriage to be precise. Graham is charmed by the fun-loving, spontaneous Audra but tired out by her. When his first wife turns up again, Graham finds himself in a quandry: ’How can anyone love two such different women? Did he make the right choice? Is there a right choice?’ ask the publishers which doesn’t sound entirely up my street and there’s every possibility that I’ve been persuaded to look at it by Twitter, something I’ve had cause to regret in the past. We’ll see.

Francesca Segal’s The Awkward Age also tackles modern family life through Julia who has fallen in love with James. All looks set for happiness but their teenage children put several spanners in the works. ‘Uniting two households is never easy, but the teenagers’ unexpected actions will eventually threaten everyone’s hard-won happiness’ say the publishers which, once again, sounds a little outside my usual literary purview but I enjoyed Segal’s The Innocents very much

Cover imageI’m ending this preview with a book by an author whose first novel is still sitting on my shelves unread although it is now the next in line. Paula McGrath’s A History of Running Away follows three women: one wanting to box at a time when boxing is illegal for women in Ireland; the second contemplating a job offer but wondering if she can bring herself to abandon her mother in her nursing home; and a third who takes up with a biker gang as a means of escape. ‘A History of Running Away is a brilliantly written novel about running away, growing up and finding out who you are’ say the publishers, promisingly.

That’s it for May. A click on a title will take you to my review for Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and to a more detailed synopsis for the other titles. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of May’s paperbacks they’re here, new novels are here and here.

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.