translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra
A challenging book. I’m not sure that I really understood it—or if understanding is exactly what’s required. Perhaps the way to respond to Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is through impressions, mood, experience.
I quickly became invested in Dorthe Nors’ novel about Sonja, a forty-something translator whose immediate goal is to get her drivers’ license in her adopted city of Copenhagen. I dove wholeheartedly into the stream-of-consciousness narrative; Sonja’s thoughts flicker and swirl, whether she’s taking a driving lesson, getting a massage, or ditching a nature walk: memories of her home in the farm country of Jutland, assessments of past lovers, reflections on her job translating a bestselling author’s murder mysteries from Swedish to Danish. Much more of the book goes on in Sonja’s head than in external dialogue or action.
Copenhagen is “the city she’s gone astray in.” Sonja can’t seem to connect with her parents or her sister back home: not by phone, postcard, or letter. As much as it bothers her, as much as she obsesses over it, Sonja tells herself she’s accepted her estrangement from her sister:
And her and Kate? When did their break start to show on the surface? A few years with separate lives, and then a microscopic crazing in the enamel. She’d noticed the tiny cracks, and no doubt Kate saw them too, but Sonja can barely recall when it became obvious to her.
Sonja’s work translating Gösta Svensson thrillers—riddled with violence toward women—earns her social capital with everyone, at the driving school, with her masseuse, and with her own sister: “If there’s one place the two sisters can meet, it’s in Gösta Svensson, because Sonja’s in fact the reason that Kate can now disappear, in Danish, into an ordered universe of evil.” Sonja imagines Danish politicians enjoying the books while on vacation: “Sunk in their wicker chairs, they’ll read about body parts in black plastic bags. They’ll rub themselves in SPF 50 and wallow in evil like it’s a party.” It’s not a job she’s proud of—but it differentiates Sonja from those who stayed at home in Jutland.
Thoughts flurry and flow, as Sonja circles around the same worries and builds bridges to new ones. She had her fortune told at a friend’s party, but:
She’s removed it from her consciousness and placed it in storage. She’s afraid that it’ll become true if she remembers it, or else she’s afraid that it’ll lose its power if it’s brought to light. She’s afraid of not believing and she’s afraid of believing.
Along the way, we learn that Sonja suffers from a hereditary form of vertigo; as she describes it, “little stones” in her head come loose if she bends down the wrong way. In managing her crises of balance, Sonja evinces the same stolid confidence in herself she has amidst or spite of (or because of?) all her uncertainties, recollections, re-assessments, and obsessions.
Initially I saw a woman adrift in her own thoughts—as so many of us are, day-to-day, hour-to-hour. I had been wondering how Sonja would make sense of all that was going on, internally and externally. Somewhere past the halfway mark of the novel, however, my experience began to shift. I began to feel that Sonja isn’t so much adrift as terribly stuck. She cannot get out of her head. She’s filled with doubt, second-guessing herself about herself. Yet there’s also a buoyancy about Sonja: what she thinks, what she understands, what she concludes, what she does. Then the cycle begins again.
At one point, I wondered if Sonja can’t go home—can’t connect to anyone from home—because there’s no home left: “the place you come from is a place you can never return to. It’s transmogrified, and you yourself are a stranger.” Unfamiliar with Nors’ style, I half-expected the story to devolve into a thriller: Sonja’s family has been dead all along; trauma has caused her to block out those facts; she may indeed be the killer herself.
How superficial of me. (I’ve apparently read one too many thrillers myself.) Sonja’s situation continues to churn, even after she stands up to her driving instructor and her masseuse; even after she finally has a brief (unsuccessful) phone conversation with Kate. She meets Martha, an older woman who’s also from Jutland, who seems to offer some assurance (in Sonja’s mind) that Sonja can go home. Does Martha represent Sonja’s aunt, or her mother? I re-read the final chapters but I still wasn’t sure.
For me, the word that rises to the surface to describe Sonja’s condition is gyre. I think of both Lewis Carroll’s “slithy toves” who “did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” and W. B. Yeats’ falcon, who, “turning in the widening gyre,” cannot hear the falconer. I felt empathy for Sonja’s struggles; still, it was something of a relief to close the book and leave her there in the gyre, her thoughts spinning on.