Navigating life: ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors

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I’m fairly certain this is the first book I’ve read in which the plot centres around the main character learning to drive.  It makes me wonder if I (and writers everywhere) are missing a trick, because the premise is fantastic.  From the opportunities for comedy to the claustrophobic power dynamics of the practical lessons to the philosophical implications of movement, control and freedom, ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ shows quite how good this set up is when it comes to exploring individuals, relationships and the complex twenty-first century.

We begin with Sonja sitting in front of the wheel trying to feel confident about the hour ahead. ‘Her driving lessons have been plagued with problems.  The biggest of them is sitting in the car right now, next to Sonja.  Her name is Jytte, and it’s her smoke that clings to the theory classroom.  Surfaces at the driving school are galvanized with cigarette smoke, and most of it took a trip through Jytte’s lungs first.’  Sonja’s time with Jytte is very very funny and it almost feels a shame when Nors takes pity on her heroine and allows her to escape.

By escape, of course, I mean suddenly appear in a new chapter with what appears to be very little agency when moving from one set piece moment to another.  In structure, ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ reminded me of Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline‘ in which another lost protagonist jerks from one awkward social encounter to another, cumulatively building up our understanding of her history and character.  For contrast, the other book that came to mind during reading was Høeg’s ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow‘ Sonja may not be from Greenland, but she is extremely conscious of her status as an outsider, always trying to identify accents in others and mournfully remembering ‘when she was six, maybe seven.  Back then she spoke Jutlandic without irony.  Now she no longer knows what language she speaks.’  I suspect in the original Danish, the regional language variations are an integral part of the narrative, complementing Sonja’s own conflicted personality.

There is much to enjoy in ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,’ not least the comedy of many of the situations Sonja finds herself in.  I can’t help feel it is an odd choice for Man Booker International shortlist however.  I read a lot of translated literature, but it is rare for me to feel so strongly that I am missing key elements in a novel.  From Sonja’s job as a translator to her difficulties communicating with those closest to her, this book felt like it should be all about language. Misha Hoekstra’s translation is engaging and extremely readable, but it never gave me the impression that these themes were being engaged with on a stylistic level.  Or maybe I was just looking for something that wasn’t there, a worrying appropriate response to a witty, concise book entitled ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,’ if so, the joke is definitely on me.

I received my copy of ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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5 Responses to Navigating life: ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors

  1. BookerTalk says:

    I was listening to an interview with this author yesterday and must admit I didn’t really understand the novel as a result . She talked a lot about its existential qualities …..

    • I can see why she would say this. Unfortunately I’ve been spoilt by Rachel Cusk – ‘Outline’ is the most existential novel I’ve read since Kafka’s ‘The Trial’. In comparison, MSS was an interesting, quirky take on ideas of identity, but I’m not sure it’s ‘existential qualities’ really hit home…

  2. This does sound interesting, but I see what you mean about the frustrations. I watched a film set in Jutland with a Danish friend and she found a lot of humour in it that she then had to explain to me, because the subtitles couldn’t capture the jokes about Jutland linguistics. I’ll have to ask her if she’s read this & how she thinks it would translate.

  3. Pingback: A Question of Style: Writing in the present tense | Shoshi's Book Blog

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