Review: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

Mirror Shoulder Signal.png

Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017

Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra


This slim novel from Dorthe Nors and published by Pushkin Press, is a witty and moving depiction of the disconnect between contemporary urban life and the human need for wild, natural places. A study in alienation and loneliness. You can never get back to the place you come from, because ‘it no longer exists’… ‘and you yourself have become a stranger.

Sonja is taking driving lessons, and her teacher won’t show her how to change gear. Brought up on a farm, her mother always told her: ‘it’ll work out’, but, living in Copenhagen as a translator of graphic crime novels, Sonja is in her 40s and still doesn’t fit in. There are too many demands on her and, ‘if you’re not careful, you stop getting it all to fit together, and then suddenly you’re a helpless piece of meat trying to catch up to your driving instructor.’

There has always been a problem with ‘the things Sonja says and the way she says them’. Even as a child she was ‘complicated’ compared to her ‘approachable’ sister, Kate who is always too busy to speak to her. Sonja attempts phone calls and letters to her sister and mother but ‘it’s hard to find words to fit the people you love.’ She is always rejected.

Sonja longs for her childhood when she could escape to her own ‘hidey-hole’ deep in a rye field to be alone, and where ‘the sky is endless’ and ‘whooper swans lifted the landscape up’. One of her happiest memories is when she collected wild oats growing in her father’s field of rye ‘like a little field mouse’ and her father ‘placed his warm hand on her head.’ Now she’s literally out of touch. Her existential malaise manifests itself in physical symptoms: her tense jaw and aching neck (eased by regular massages), and positional vertigo – a condition in which sudden movements can make her dizzy, where the tiny stones in her inner ear move like ‘a murmuration of starlings’ and she faints.

In what could easily be a bleak novel, Dorthe Nors gives us some wry, funny moments: Sonja muses on the fact that she’s never come across any of the ‘mutilated women and children’ depicted in Svensson’s novels ‘lying and rotting everywhere on Scandinavian public land’. And men lounge around on holiday, slapping on sun cream and reading Swedish noir: ‘a crossword puzzle with sperm and maggots.’ Nors also pokes fun at the fashion for mindfulness – on a country walk Sonja and a group of women and are instructed to ‘open our senses to nature. Touch the moss. Pluck the grass… make yourself heavy in the pelvis.’

Her failure to learn to drive is a well-used metaphor for life, but in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal the approach is subtle and fresh. Sonja stands up to Jytte, her female driving instructor because she won’t let her ‘take any responsibility in the car’ and rejects the male owner of the driving school’s clumsy attempts at a relationship. Eventually she realises she can change: ‘you’re allowed to flee the blows you’re being dealt,’ and she makes a bid to escape. On her way to a concert Sonja impulsively gets off the train to help an older woman who is in Copenhagen to visit a niece and seems lost. Her kindness is rewarded with kindness and, at the end of this excellent novel there is at last a sense of hope – if Sonja goes back to the village where she was born, there’s only one traffic light so she doesn’t even need to be able to drive.

In this wonderfully subtle translation by Misha Hoekstra, the language is extraordinary. Funny, sad but moving. A strong contender for the Man Booker International prize.


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