Sonja is in her forties, she’s single and she really wants to get her driver’s licence.
With an unsettling opening we learn of Sonja’s tension when driving in traffic, her imagined escape, a picnic in a cemetery, she really wants to progress but she also wants to escape. Within pages we feel Sonja’s angst, her repression.
Dorthe Nors novel “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal” uses an unusual protagonist, a character who we don’t often see as a lead player, a loner, a woman who moved from her country upbringing to Copenhagen, one who is struggling with her family relationships, self employed as a crime fiction translator, she spends more time alone than in the company of others.
The title “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal” refers to her driving lessons, the core theme throughout, however the instructions are also an allegory, the “mirror” looking to the rear, a reflection what has happened behind you, in the past, the “shoulder” the immediate vicinity, what is happening in the now and the “signal” the future, where she is heading, what are her intentions. Add to this Sonja’s major problem of learning to drive, her inability to change gears, “you cannot go from second to third by taking a shortcut”, she needs to be meticulous when moving forward, there is no diagonal.
A novel that moves between the “mirror, shoulder, signal” phases of Sonja’s life. Her immediate angst, her massage remediation, the masseuse relieves and gives her tension, her awful relationship with her driving instructors, who create tension, and her battles to re-establish a relationship with her sister, who had “been a stowaway in rolling wrecks, a barn-dance femme-fatale, and the belle of clubs and gym meets.”
A woman who has no major future plans, her “signal” is represented by references to a discussion with a “curry-colored tunic” wearing fortune teller, a discussion she cannot recall. She believes she has “lost her right to imagine her future”.
The past is where Sonja retreats, to make sense of her situation, a place filled with disappearing into lonely rye fields, hiding in trees, and the puzzle of how she lost her elder sister?
Taking a walk with her masseuse’s hiking group, they are instructed to connect with nature;
Even Sonja’s found a cushion of moss. She walks around with cushion in hand so that it looks as if she’s taking part. The moss feels wet underneath, she can feel the dampness on her palm, and she sniffs the cushion too; it smells of sex, she thinks. Yes, it smells of composting toilets, school camps, secret forts. It smells of the upholstery in scrapped automobiles, the sour tops of fruit juice bottles, and children in grungy undies. (pp38)
A woman who has “always shied away from others demanding she adapt” Sonja keeps referring to “the place you come from is a place you can never return to. It’s transmogrified, and you yourself are a stranger.” (pp66) she is “not being able to fill her life in the right way”, a woman “astray” in the big city.
This novel is moving in its exploration of loneliness, despair and single character focus. In a way it reminded me of last year’s Man Booker International Prize shortlisted “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler (translated by Charlotte Collins), although completely different in place and style, the exploration of a simple life, a single life, creating depth to a central character usually anonymous in literature. This year Dorthe Nors has done something similar for the forgotten female voice.
An unsettling, moving but readable work, this is a nice addition to the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist. Will it progress further? I can see this book resonating more with female readers than male ones, however it is unique in its exploration of a middle-aged woman. As Grant at 1st reading, https://1streading.wordpress.com/, said “Northe has spoken about the ‘invisibility’ of middle-age women, and we sense Sonja’s efforts to make herself matter; this seems to be partly by accepting who she is rather than who others want her to be. Some may find it a little dry, but it builds to a moving conclusion.” I’m a little more upbeat than Grant about its future chances on the lists, however wouldn’t be at all surprised if it fell at the first hurdle either.
Next up from the Man Booker International Prize list I will look at a book where severed heads play an important role – yes a very diverse list indeed in 2017!