The story of “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal” by Dorthe Nors is fairly simple on the surface. Sonja is in her 40s living in modern-day Copenhagen and working as a translator of sensational Scandinavian crime fiction by Gosta Svensson (who is compared to Steig Larsson). Her occupation as a translator allows the author to explore thoughts about the nature of writing: “Language is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest alteration can elevate a sentence or be its undoing.” Sonja is learning how to drive at an academy although she’s self-conscious that she’s older than most of the people in her class. The story follows her lessons on the road, her experiences receiving treatment from a New Age-type masseuse Ellen and reflecting on memories of her family/childhood. Sonja feels in some curious way cut off from both her past and future so struggles to navigate her way through a nebulous present. What begins as a light and comic tale gradually turns much darker and soul-searching.
The beginning of this book reminded me of the start of Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Scoop” which shows a socialite’s madcap car ride through the streets of London. Sonja isn’t a very good driver and from Nors’ descriptions you can almost feel the car careering through the streets of Copenhagen narrowly escaping multiple accidents. Her education is not helped by her instructor in the passenger seat Jytte who smokes, frequently seizes control of the car and makes xenophobic/racist comments. As she’s disturbed by this behaviour she switches instructors to the centre’s owner Folke and a romantic tension forms. As Sonja’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic it becomes clear how lonely and troubled she really is although on the surface she appears completely calm.
It feels like Nors wrote this novel partly as a self conscious foil to the kind of Scandi crime that Sonja translates. Her character feels slightly contemptuous of the genre and the people who avidly read it. She remarks that politicians who like taking these books on holiday will happily “rub themselves in SPF 50 and wallow in evil like it’s a party.” In contrast to the tales of violence and intrigue that she translates, Sonja’s story is something much more considered and subtle. Nothing extraordinary happens to her, but the schism which exists between her and her family – especially her sister Kate is intensely felt: “If Sonja and Kate were apples, you’d say that they’d fallen on two different sides of the tree.” Rather than explosive action, it’s only in unsent letters she writes and a telephone call to Kate that you’re really given a sense of how unhinged Sonja really is.
Sonja obsessively mulls over details of her childhood. There is a feeling of nostalgia and sense of loss that I think a lot of people feel especially if in adulthood they’ve moved away from where they were raised: “the place you come from is a place you can never return to. It’s transmogrified, and you yourself are a stranger.” Some descriptive details come up multiple times (such as a sandwich made from brown sugar pressed into bread). In particular, she frequently recalls a past visit to a strange fortune teller in a curry tunic that somehow obstructed her moving forward in her life: “If you don’t believe in the occult, you can’t guard against it, Sonja realizes. And if you do believe, you’re in deep shit.” I couldn’t quite make out why this encounter was so significant to Sonja, but it’s disallowed her from maturing into a healthy adult. Instead she’s trapped in this slightly infantile state where she can’t emotionally relate to many people or, indeed, drive no matter how earnestly she tries to learn. As it progresses the story has a curiously melancholic and haunting effect. Although “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal” didn’t feel entirely satisfying, it was an intriguing and thoughtful novel.