Mirror, Shoulder, Signal
This fairly short novel tells of a few days in the life of Sonja Hansen, who feels herself an oddball, an outsider from Jutland, now residing in Copenhagen. Forty and single, her attempts to learn to drive provide a prop for Sonja’s introspective flow of consciousness about her life, her past and where she is going. Whilst the story is told in the third person and the driving lessons narrative is linear, in conventional story-telling style, her thoughts and reminiscences are wonderfully non-linear – even circular – as she tries to ‘go back’ to a time she sat in the rye fields or watched whooper swans across the plains.
There is a melancholic ruefulness as Sonja ruminates about her difficult relationship with her sister, husband-and-two-children suburban Kate, and her other sister, Molly and childhood friend, Marie. There is, of course, Mum and Dad.
Copenhagen has been named as the world’s ‘happiest city’. In Nors’ novel, Sonja is far from happy, as her loud in-your-face driving instructor Jytte tramples over Sonja’s finely tuned sensibilities. It is a black comedy of the Erica Jong semi-feminist type, and indeed there is a passing reference to the fear of flying and Jodie Foster in ‘Contact’, a film I, too, love. It is about how Sonja disassociates from the reality of the horror of 'everyday life'.
There are the reflections of lost love, Paul, and future possibility, Folke, the driving school owner. Then there is the trendy conscious-raising Ellen, who believes in angels and new-age therapies.
Nors sketches her characters finely, her narrative is skilful and well-crafted. The seamlessness of Sonja’s interior world and the humdrum external world interweaves in a deceptively simple fashion.
The result is a wonderful tragicomedy. It recalled one’s own nerve-stricken driving lessons, later in life than normal. Although not a journal, nor in the first person, or even particularly self-deprecating, nonetheless it reminded me of a Danish Brigit Jones. The everyday anxieties we all feel are there, as life’s bigger picture revolves and evolves around us.
A classic line is:
“_Somewhere in the distance, a blackbird sings in a solitary tree. Sonja can see the slats of the bench and the way Copenhagen keeps going nonstop on the other side of the canal. _”
The narrative is poetic and beautiful. There are some truly magical moments in the novel, in particular, when Sonja recollects sitting in a childhood tree. This scene took my breath away. Nors recreates exactly the happy days of childhood when the world is perfect and all in it is well, even if it is momentary. The adult Sonja strives to capture her lost self, knowing all the while of its pervasive elusiveness and impossibility.
The world around her is chaotic, her compatriots baffling, as they wear personae adapted to the bustling city. Jytte is a caricature, yet she is real. We see Jytte-types everywhere we look. She is repulsive, she is a little bit ourselves. Ellen, too, is a toned down ‘Millie Tant’ wimmins libber, as the reader sniggers knowingly at her faux terminology. We all know such a character in search of herself. Sonja ponders on the nature of manliness.
I can see why this was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 (however, won by another writer I have not yet read, David Grossman: 'A Horse walks into a Bar'). It is fully deserved, as Nors is undoubtedly a gifted writer. The novel held me from start to finish. It is existential. It delves deep into the psyche, yet its surface is calm. There are black thunderclouds on the horizon. It is compelling reading. Nors captures the transcendental nature of landscapes that strike a chord within, with the same flair as Jack Kerouac.
If you enjoy Scandinavian fiction, you might enjoy another shortlisted novel: The Unseen, by Norwegain writer, Roy Jacobsen. What I like about this genre is its plain simple writing without frills or filler. _Mirror, Shoulder, Signal_ fills the criteria perfectly.