Dorthe Nors is a household name in her native Denmark and her prize-winning fiction is now gathering an international following. She was the first Danish writer to have a story published in the New Yorker. Her 2016 novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal has just been published in Britain and will raise Nors’ profile further.
This mid-life fame (Nors was born in 1970) is a pleasing riposte to one of the author’s central themes — that of women’s struggle for visibility. In a blog, Dors explains her starting point: “I do write books about middle-aged, childless women on the brink of disappearing — or you could say — on the brink of losing their licence to live.”
This is the situation of Sonja, forty-something protagonist of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. The title is a reference to her efforts to learn to drive, a licence to at least one sort of freedom. The lessons, though, are not going well and she resents being the oldest pupil at the driving school. Sonja has already soared through the theory test; the practicals are proving harder.
Sonja lives alone in a pleasant flat (her partner left her for “a twenty-something girl who still wore French braids”) and works as the Danish translator of a famous male Swedish crime writer. In fact, Sonja’s intimate knowledge of a celebrity and his work is the only thing holding together her relationship with her older sister back home in rural Jutland. Kate always finds reasons not to pick up the phone when Sonja calls from Copenhagen. “If there’s one place the two sisters can meet, it’s in Gosta Svensson, because Sonja’s in fact the reason that Kate can now disappear, in Danish, into an ordered universe of evil.”
That Sonja’s social standing comes from a man who is not her partner, and whose writing Sonja herself doesn’t rate, is not lost on her. She knows how to use her access judiciously (handing out free books to those who will appreciate them), but over the course of this novel, Sonja examines every aspect of her life and finds it in need of change. The problem she faces — both in her driving and her life — is that she can’t shift gears. It doesn’t help that she has a form of vertigo, and is overwhelmed with sudden dizziness at inopportune moments.
This premise is seemingly unambitious, but Dors’ writing has witty and insightful depth. Sonja is central to no one’s life — not to her sister, to whom Sonja writes letters she never posts, nor to her friends, who have busy lives of their own. Her childhood friend Molly fits into the city: a psychologist, married with children, who also finds time for affairs. Molly has reinvented herself, casting off provincial life by changing everything, including her name. Lone Pedersen has become Molly Schmidt — and someone “Sonja must confess she doesn’t really know”.
Sonja orbits others’ lives, inhabiting Copenhagen but not of it: “She’s standing on a side street in a capital city that won’t have anything to do with her, yet she’s also far away in the landscape.” Increasingly, she seeks the city’s margins. Her driving instructor takes her on an odd trip to the water’s edge, where Sonja refuses to acknowledge his unwanted sexual interest in her. The moment passes. “A handsome man in theory . . . but now I want to go home.”
The memories and places of Sonja’s childhood begin to assume great importance. She is yearning to reconnect with the people, the land — and herself. This may be a hopeless dream: “It no longer exists, Sonja thinks, trying to swallow the lump in her throat, and you yourself have become a stranger.”
Nors writes important modern women’s fiction. It is an act of 21st century recovery and assertion: she gives back agency and centrality to older women, sidelined in all societies, even Scandinavian ones, where women are valued less than men, and childless, single women least of all.
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, by Dorthe Nors, Pushkin, RRP£10.99, 160 pages