Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal has received substantial acclaim. The Danish writer’s fifth novel has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International. The New York Times Book Review has previously called her writing ‘Unsettling and poetic’, and the Los Angeles Times hailed it as ‘witty, gut wrenching, stark and lyrical’.
With this reception in mind, Mirror was a puzzling book for me. While the premise was promising, the execution was underwhelming. Mirror is about loneliness, Nors tackling societal sidelining of middle-aged women — particularly those who are single and childless. Her protagonist, Sonja, is a translator. Alone and in her mid-forties, she exists on a periphery — her sister, Kate, hovers in the novel’s background, always finding excuses not to answer the phone when Sonja calls. Her closest relationship is with her masseuse, Ellen, but she is similarly a distant presence in Sonja’s life. When she tries to build a closer friendship Sonja (literally) runs away.
Loneliness in an ever-interconnected world is an increasingly urgent topic, and Nors’s deft, quicksilver prose adeptly captures a sense of being isolated while ostensibly surrounded by people. But the central conceits of the novel struck me as too obvious to provide convincing insights, reading clumsily against the fragility of both the protagonist and Nors’s prose. Sonja is learning to drive (hence the book’s title), and finds it difficult to shift gears. She also has positional vertigo: if she moves too quickly she risks passing out. Such transparent metaphors feel self-defeating: poignancy teeters on the edge of parody. This is immensely frustrating, because in the stretches without reference to either driving or positional vertigo Nors’s prose sparkles with wit and compassion. Nors shortchanges herself by embedding these displays of verbal virtuosity within a contrived structure; they would speak more eloquently in isolation.
Driving and vertigo aside, Nors’s analysis of gender relationships is beautifully executed. The men in Mirror are assertive and authoritative, overshadowing Sonja even in their absence. Most domineering of these is Gösta Svensson, the man whose books Sonja translates for a living. He’s a crime writer and his absent presence is sexually threatening — Nors wryly points to the masochism of deriving pleasure from reading about grotesque sexually motivated murders. One of my favourite passages comes early in the book, discussing Sonja, Kate, and their relationship with Gösta:
if there’s someone who scares me, it’s Gösta, Sonja thinks, regarding the manuscript on the desk. His rapes and his sales numbers scare me. Yet Kate’s not afraid of Gösta. That sex criminal who might lurk behind the front door as she comes back from a late shift at the nursing home? Kate tackles him lustily in the pages of Gösta’s books.
Sonja communicates with the outside world through her association with Gösta — he’s the only thing she and her sister talk about, and she lends his books to her driving instructor for his wife to read. There’s something both pitiful and sinister about the fact that Sonja’s social status depends on her role as Gösta’s translator. Nors successfully forces Sonja even further into the background of her own life through this overpowering male presence.
Like its protagonist, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal fluctuates between extremes, with its moments of brilliance overshadowed by a cumbersome frame. It is quite possible that the intention was to place the reader in the same position as Sonja, unable to escape from the inevitable return of the driving lessons and positional vertigo. For me, however, it detracted from the overall power of the novel, undermining its more subtle observations.