Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors


When I was reading this book sometimes I drifted off without quite knowing it, until I became conscious that what I thought I was reading was surely not right. It took me to some odd places.

This book is a series of observations about a woman in her 40s. Sonja grew up in rural Jutland, Denmark and seeing herself as different from her family and everyone else there, made her way to Copenhagen. She translates books by a well-known Swedish crime novelist, described as similar to Stieg Larsson so the reader understands his work is violent. She is taking driving lessons and is intimidated by her instructor Jytte, who never lets her touch the gearshift and keeps up a running commentary about herself. Sonja has a medical problem inherited from her mother which could keep her from having a license. Called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, it means that she cannot maintain her balance when her head is in a certain position. Sonja is awfully odd socially and always has been. When on an outing with a friend, she might just take off on her own, for example.

It is through the lens of her driving lessons that we learn about Sonja. The fact that she has undertaken this effort at her advanced age tells us that while she has been unable to achieve some norms, she is bold at times. She does not confront Jytte, but does go to the head of the school, Folke, so that he will take over her instruction. Though he is married, she believes he has an interest in her and she has ambiguous feelings toward him. She tries to hide her medical problem that poses a danger to herself and others.

I know people who have experienced that vertigo (including Mr. Booklog), though Sonja’s case seems much worse and could occur by merely looking down at the gearshift. Her doctor has explained that it is a case of stones in her inner ear that need to settle down. In an emotional moment with her new friend Martha,

she bends all the way forward while she weeps, yes, she’s weeping, and the stones whirl round like a murmuration of starlings in her inner ears, they surge about and cast themselves quick here, quick there, they look like a fingerprint against the late summer sky. Then they swoop down over the rushes, swoop up over the rushes, they whoosh in across town and away from it again. They ought to land on the rooflines and form a black border against the sky, they ought to be singing with joy, yet for now they flit every which way, and Sonja flits with them in a silty blackness, a viscid underworld of sorrow and hands and then she’s toppling off the bench, her face plunging toward the pavement except that Martha grabs her…

Sonja is a character worthy of a careful look, though not entirely comprehensible to me.

Dorthe Nors, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, trans. by Misha Hoekstra, Graywolf Press, 2016 (originally), 188 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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