Dorthe Nors: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal – Spejl, Skoulder, Blink (2016) Danish Literature

Dorthe Nors is a Danish writer who has written novels, novellas, and short stories. Her short stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the Boston Review, and The New Yorker. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize last year. Several of her books have been translated.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal tells the story of Sonja, a single woman in her forties, who lives in Copenhagen and wants nothing more than learning to drive. It seems such a modest wish but for Sonja, who suffers from positional vertigo, it’s huge. The doctor actually told her she cannot learn how to drive but here she is anyway, getting driving lessons and failing miserably. Not because of the vertigo but because she just can’t figure out how to change gear. In itself, even though she urgently wants to learn to drive, this wouldn’t be so dramatic but there’s so much more that doesn’t really work in Sonja’s life that the failed driving lessons take on gigantic proportions.

Sonja moved to Copenhagen from rural Jutland. She’s the first of her family to study and after getting her degree in literature she moves to the exciting big city where she works as a translator of Swedish crime writer Gösta Svensson’s bloody serial killer novels. Not exactly the life she’d expected but then again what life did Sonja expect? That’s the question that not only Sonja asks herself during the course of this novel but also the reader. Sonja is the kind of character many readers seem to hate. She’s almost anachronistic in her failure to figure out what she wants and then go and get it. Because she is in many ways weak, people take advantage of her. Strangers and friends alike. Most people see her as someone they can use to talk endlessly about themselves, to show off, to bully, to patronise or, as her newest driving instructor, to have an affair with.

Sonja knows that her life is off its rails and she knows she’s missing direction but she can’t figure out how to get out of this mess other than to daydream or think about the past.

I was so not sure whether I liked this book or not until I read the last pages and everything came together. The ending was so sad, moving, and poignant that I ended up really liking this novel and it’s passive, at times annoying protagonist.

Everybody wants to read about strong, assertive characters and, of course, that’s inspiring but there’s so much truth in Sonja. I’m sure there’s so much hidden human misery in every big city, certainly also in small cities, that I found this story of a woman who had big dreams but ended up lonely and miserable very touching. It takes a special kind of character to survive in big, cold cities, especially when you were born elsewhere. And not everyone is capable of forming meaningful relationships, not everyone has the knack to be socially integrated. I’m very glad that Dorthe Nors chose to write about a quiet character whose struggles go unnoticed by those who surround her. At first even Sonja herself doesn’t notice. Only when she realises all of her struggles are futile does it dawn on her.

This could have been a sad and depressing story but it’s not because there are many funny moments. Sonja may not see herself as clearly as she should at first but she sees others all the more clearly. She has no illusions about those around her and her observations are often funny and laconic. There are the scenes with her massage therapist who also wants her to join her meditation group that are absolutely priceless.

As I said, there were moments when I wasn’t too sure about this book but in the end I liked the book and its old-fashioned heroine very much.

30 thoughts on “Dorthe Nors: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal – Spejl, Skoulder, Blink (2016) Danish Literature

    • I’m so glad to hear that you liked it too. I saw so many really negative reviews that I was almost a bit shocked. I had a moment in the middle where I wasn’t too sure but towards the end it gets better and better. She’s a very believable character.

  1. Super review Caroline. I agree, it does seem that everyone talks about “strong characters” these days as if included them in a book is itself good writing. In reality, not everyone is strong. One purpose of literature is to reflect reality.

    • Thank you, Brian. I couldn’t agree more. If we ask for diverse literature we should mean it. And it should include portraits like this, which are very true and at times painful to read about.

  2. A really interesting review, very thoughtful and considered. I think I would like this book quite a bit, especially given the nature of the central character. There’s a lot to be said about stories that focus on quiet, introverted individuals who are struggling to find their place in the world. In this case, it sounds as if the ending brings everything together in a very meaningful way.

    • Thanks, Jacqui. I’d love to know what you think of this. I think it’s important to write about these individuals as in real life they might not get noticed. If you’d met Sonja, you’d think wow a translator of a famous crime writer. You wouldn’t know she’s lonely or traumatized by the books she translates. I lik.edtge ending very much.

  3. I liked this a lot. The way Sonja wanted more out of life, but because of her upbringing she was the eternal loner and socially awkward, seemed a bit familiar to me. 🙂 I hope her other books get translated one day.

    • I could relate as well. 🙂 I thought she was such an interesting character and while she might not have been assertive, in many ways she stayed true to herself.
      I actually thought quite a few of her books are available in Englush but maybe not her novels. I have to check again.

      • You’re right! Some of her other fiction is available in English. I don’t know where I got my misinformation. I need to read more of her writing. Have you read anything else she’s written? I’m looking for a recommendation. 🙂

  4. I’ve seen this book doing the rounds and thought it might appeal. I don’t mind at all my characters not being strong and decisive – are we ever that in real life? – and although that indecision can be frustrating at times I’m glad the resolution was pleasing.

    • Pleasing isn’t the right word. It’s actually quite sad but I liked it. It felt so realistic and there’s some hope. I’d love to know what you think of it.

  5. Beautiful review, Caroline! I read a short story by Dorthe Nors in a book called ‘The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North’. So nice to know that she has written novels too and glad to know you liked this one. I am a huge fan of introverted characters – loved the heroine in Alexis Smith’s ‘Glaciers’ and the main character in Patrick Süskind’s ‘The Pigeon’ – and so I am tempted to try this. Will add this to my TBR. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thank you, Vishy. I remember your review. It was a book that tempted me a lot. So nice to know that Dorthe Nors was in it. I need to get it finally. I love introverted characters as well. While I liked Glaciers more, I still found this very special. I hope you’ll enjoy too. I never read The Pigeon but I remember you mentioned it a few times. Another book to check out.

      • I hope you get to read that collection and like it, Caroline. I have never read so many Scandinavian writers in one place before and it was so nice to explore different styles. I read ‘Glaciers’ after you recommended it and I loved it. Since then I have recommended it many times to my book club friends here and my copy of the book has been on circulation for a while and more and more readers have fallen in love with it. Thanks to you, ‘Glaciers’ has found many admirers in this part of the world 🙂 Hope you get to read ‘The Pigeon’. It is more a novella than a novel, and I liked the depiction of the main character in it, and how he struggles to navigate our everyday world.

        • That’s so exciting, Vishy. She deserves to be read widely. I’m very happy about it. :). I actually need to check if she has written anything new.
          Anthologies like the one you read are wonderful to discover new authors. I know I had it on my wish list before.
          The Pigeon sounds wonderful.

  6. I’m glad you were gracious and compassionate enough to love this novel in the end; the opposite was true for me. I did not like it at all! I found her trite and foolish, rather than feeling sympathy for her. Maybe it was just the wrong book at the wrong time, because other bloggers I respect (such as you and Tony Messenger) found it to be at least somewhat meaningful.

  7. Great review Caroline – I loved this (and her other stuff in English). Hope Pushkin Press keep bringing us more Dorthe Nors.

    PS – another recommendation for The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat. Fabulous collection, which has lead me to get at least 2 other books by the writers it introduced to me.

    • Thanks so much, Ian. I’m glad to hear you liked other books by her as well. I can imagine she’s a great short story writer.
      I need to get that collection. Thanks for letting me know. I’m curious to see what authors I will discover.

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