Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and the Struggle of Changing Gears

Dorthe Nors’s newest novel, about a 40-something woman in Copenhagen learning to drive for the first time, is more profound than its premise suggests.

The Danish writer Dorthe Nors likes to subject her characters to “the battle that you experience on the brink of something new,” she explained in a 2014 interview in The Paris Review. For the 40-something protagonist of her latest novel—the first to appear in English, and a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize last year—the battle is learning to drive. Shifting gears is a challenge for Sonja, a translator of Swedish crime fiction who lives in Copenhagen and is prone to bouts of dizziness. Even working up the nerve to change driving instructors is a struggle.


Only a writer as agile and profound as Nors would dare to proceed from such a heavy-handed (and humdrum) premise. The novel’s power builds as Sonja’s inner world unfolds. Stuck in a driving lesson or on her massage therapist’s table, she is elsewhere, too, as if she’d “pressed an elevator button in her mind.” An unmoored, lonely soul in a big city, she’s grappling with “the things she cannot find the language to say and the people she most wants to say them to.”

Sonja’s thoughts return again and again to the countryside where she grew up, and especially to her estranged sister. But gauzy nostalgia isn’t in her middle-aged repertoire as she navigates the terrifying on-ramp to the future alone. “As women,” she says of herself and her mother in a rare moment of dialogue, “we’re not completely fine-tuned.” As a novelist, Nors comes remarkably close.

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