Book review: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, by Dorthe Nors

25 09 2017

Dorthe Nors is a Danish author with several novels and novellas to her name as well as a short fiction collection. She has also worked as a translator, mostly of the works of Swedish crime novelist Johan Theorin. Her publishing credits include The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Boston Review; she has won the P O Enquist Literary Prize and, with her novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, was a finalist in the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

MirrorShoulderSignal

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (Spejl, skulder, blink, 2016, translated by Misha Hoekstra) is an episodic novel exploring the minutiae of translator and misfit Sonja Hansen’s life as she negotiates driving lessons with Jytte, an overbearing, distractable and short-tempered instructor; massage sessions with Ellen, aura reader and interpreter of muscular anxiety; translating the works of pretentious, misogynistic Swedish crime novelist Gösta Svensson; and painful and unsatisfying interactions with a family who, after four-and-a-bit decades, still pointedly refuse to understand her. This could be a recipe for tedium, but Nors’ comic timing is note-perfect, her ability to extract tension and pathos from the smallest detail is enviable, and the book engages almost from the first sentence.

Nors’ characters (notably Sonja herself, who prefers solitude to human interaction, suffers from otolithic vertigo (BPPV—a condition which ensures that if she bends over, she experiences extreme dizziness), and is haunted by an adolescent fortune-telling session, the gist of which she can no longer remember) are idosyncratic yet fully credible. In both the subtle complexity of its characterisation and its focus on a minutely-observed existence, the book is reminiscent of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book: in her dogged determination to follow her own track and to ignore societal expectations, Sonja could well be considered a weighted average of the two principal characters from Jansson’s book, and the bone-dry humour of Nors’ writing—chiefly her sudden, distracting, and yet strongly informative changes of topic—also carries a somewhat Janssonian flavour. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is an appealing book that impresses with its quiet depths: it conveys considerably more than, at first, it lets on.

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Book review: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, by Peter Høeg

11 07 2017

Peter Høeg is an award-winning Danish author whose eight books to date, written in a variety of literary styles, have appeared across a thirty-year span.

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In Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (Froken Smillas Fornemelse for Sne, 1992, translated by F David), known in the US and in an associated movie production as Smilla’s Sense of Snow, the titular Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen is an acerbic and gifted loner, of mixed Danish and Greenlandic heritage, who cannot determine exactly where, if anywhere, she fits within society and has therefore made a habit of excluding herself from it as much as possible. Isaiah, the young son of Smilla’s alcoholic neighbour Juliette, has been an exception, begrudgingly allowed into Smilla’s solitude, but when Isaiah falls to his death from the snow-covered rooftop of the apartment building in which they live, Smilla is spurred into action by the inadequacy of a cursory police investigation which soon determines Isaiah’s death to be a suicide. Smilla is convinced there is something much more sinister involved.

It’s difficult to reliably characterise MSFfS, which often seems to be heading in so many directions at once that it’s unsettlingly kaleidoscopic. In a plot that references (among many other things) jazz, ice-fishing, tropical parasitology, accounting practices, industrial espionage, navigation, the extinction of the dinosaurs and the correct form of artificial lighting for the photography of snow, Høeg also finds space for a steady undercurrent of black humour. Much of this is conveyed through Smilla’s voice, or her unvoiced thoughts: first-person-present-tense can be a difficult style in which to relate a tale effectively, but Smilla’s character is sufficiently well-versed in a breadth of subject matter, so strongly individual and innately rebellious that her viewpoint frequently surprises. An example from the text may illustrate this better than any analysis I might offer:

“I hate lies,” I say. “If any lying has to be done, I’ll do it myself.”
“Then you should have told him that. Instead of hugging him.”
I can’t believe my ears, but I see that I’ve heard correctly. In his eyes there is the gleam of pure, unadulterated, idiotic jealousy.
“I didn’t hug him,” I say. “I helped him into his coat. For three reasons. First, because it’s a courtesy you ought to show towards a fragile, elderly man. Second, because he presumably risked his position and pension to come here.”
“And the third?”
“Third,” I say, “because it gave me the chance to steal his wallet.”

This conveys, I hope, a sense of the book’s flavour, though it’s just one small facet of an unusually complicated tale. The prose is finely chiselled, patient, playful. I felt in a couple of places that Høeg’s set-pieces were slightly overwrought—Smilla gets away with a lot, largely on moxie, the curiosity of her opponents, and hellish good luck—but overall this is a quite beautifully rewarding book, busy with invention, full of delicate detail; a book that is best read slowly. (I started and finished several other titles in the time taken to percolate my way through MSFfS.) It’s rare, I think, to find a single book which so encapsulates a complicated protagonist that the telling is utterly complete in itself, and yet leaves so much around the margins that the world is seen to be much larger than the tale it contains—it’s a trick managed, I think, in The Summer Book, and also in Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, two books which otherwise have almost nothing in common with it or with each otherbut this is true of Smilla too, while also toeing a fine line in narrative indeterminacy. It’s one of my favourite reads of the year to date.