Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

Sonja is in her forties and learning to drive, a situation she finds both intimidating and awkward. This is the unprepossessing premise of Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, translated, like Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, by Misha Hoekstra. In middle-age, Sonja finds herself alone and childless; her sister, Kate, won’t speak to her and her best friend, Molly, doesn’t understand her. Even her job is solitary: translating the crime novels of Gosta Svensson:

“All that flesh decomposing; the angry ejaculations, the mutilated vaginas, the ritual adornment of evil.”

(She also calls them “A crossword puzzle with sperm and maggots” – it seems Northe is not averse to poking fun at the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction). When Molly asks her why she doesn’t translate some other writer, she simply replies, “Free market forces.”

Learning to drive is an attempt to gain some control over her life, but to do this she must first relinquish control and “Sonja’s never liked being someone who has to be taken in hand and assisted.” Unfortunately her instructor, Jytte, is reluctant to return any of that control to her, dominating both the conversation and the gear-stick:

“Because Jytte’s got a lot on her mind she hasn’t had time to teach Sonja to shift for herself. Sonja’s been driving with Jytte for six months and she still fumbles with the gears. Jytte seizes the initiative and deals with it for her, since when Jytte deals with changing gears “

Sonja’s anxiety over not having control of her future can be best seen in repeated mentions of a fortune teller whose predictions she cannot, or perhaps refuses to, recall. Her attempt to change her own destiny can be seen in numerous ways. She accepts an invitation from her masseur, Ellen, to go on a ‘meditative hike’ in the country, but abandons the others over an inability to pee outdoors. She writes a letter to her sister, but doesn’t post it. She nurses the possibility of an affair with her new driving instructor, Folke, while not necessarily wanting one.

The nagging doubts which typify Sonja’s thoughts seem to originate, however, in a homesickness for the countryside where she grew up which she finds difficult to accept. Like many young people, she convinced herself that the only way to get on in life was to move to Copenhagen: “When we were driving across Funen, you said the Great Belt ferry would be ‘the point of no return.’” she tells her friend, Molly:

“And besides, who’d want to go back to Skjern anyhow?”

Yet her friendship with Molly is based entirely on their shared past:

“They came to a crossroads in their relationship years ago, but no one else in Copenhagen remembers them as they were before that. There’s no one else to nourish their roots.”

Sonja frequently remembers her childhood. Her happiest moments were alone in the rye:

“Sonja circles around in the rye like a field mouse. She’s made the path herself, and it took her some time. Above her, the sky is endless.”

These memories are echoed in her present day habit of spending time alone in a cemetery:

“Sonja thinks about the dead prime ministers in the cemetery. It’s lovely to take a blanket there… The dead make no noise, and if she’s lucky a bird of prey might soar overhead. Then she’ll lie there, and escape.”

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a clever novel, built with precision around a series of ordinary events which resonate with unexpected anxiety. Northe has spoken about the ‘invisibility’ of middle-age women, and we sense Sonja’s efforts to make herself matter; this seems to be partly by accepting who she is rather than who others want her to be. Some may find it a little dry, but it builds to a moving conclusion. I suspect it will not make the short list as it will be seen as ‘minor’ – lacking the ‘depth’ required for a prize winner. Yet Sonja’s story will resonate with many readers.

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12 Responses to “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal”

  1. Bellezza Says:

    Hmmmm, your review makes me think of the Man Booker Prize contender, Eileen, by Moshfegh. It was a strange book, with an unlikely heroine; a bit lost, a bit lonely. I haven’t read this one, but I feel less inclined to praise it now that I’ve read your thoughts. It’s good to be on an objective jury panel with you and the others.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I’m not sure about this either to be honest, especially given your closing comments about the style and lack of depth. It’s so useful to see the quotes as they definitely support your comments. I wonder if this is the type of book that will divide readers?

    • 1streading Says:

      I think it will, though I suspect it has more depth to it than might at first appear. I was referring more to the fact that short novels by women are often dismissed in this way.

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  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That actually sounds rather good. I’ve never much liked the minor/major categories, but I do find that a well executed “minor” novel is often more rewarding than the majors. Less tiring, less noisy.

    I haven’t read her short collection yet though so I should probably look at that first.

  6. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (translated by Misha Hoekstra, Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list) – Dolce Bellezza Says:

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  7. The Man Booker International Prize 2017 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] by Clemens Meyer (Germany), translated by Katy Derbyshire and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), translated by Misha Hoekstra and published by Pushkin Press Judas by Amos […]

  8. Caroline Says:

    I like the sound of this one very much. I understood your closing comment rather as criticism of the jury, not the book.

    • 1streading Says:

      I think sometimes ‘lighter’ books, especially those by women, can be judged unduly harshly in comparison to books which are overtly ‘serious’.

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