Suzi Feay

Changing lanes

Her life seems at an impasse, and she’s continually being yelled at by her driving instructor. Can she change gear in time?

Changing lanes
Text settings

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Mischa Hoeksta

Pushkin Press, pp. 188, £

It’s fair to say Sonja Hansen’s life has stalled. Forties, tall and ungainly, veteran of failed relationships, she’s an uncomfortable fit for modern life in bustling Copenhagen. Geographical, spiritual and emotional immobility is expressed in her physical lack of ease, including ‘positional vertigo’ which renders the manoeuvre of the title difficult. Not without a certain quiet defiance, she still feels unable to fire her driving instructor, aggressive, non-stop-nattering Jytta, who won’t let her shift the gears herself. In between bouts of gossip and racist abuse of other drivers, Jytta bellows instructions at her cowering pupil: ‘GREEN ARROW, TURN GODDAMMIT, BIKE!’

In this short novel Nors manages to condense the essence of a life. Sonja is stock-taking, wondering how to change; trying to drive in a new direction but continually taking a turning back into the past. Her peaceful childhood in Jutland is evoked whenever she glimpses wild birds, especially the whooper swans that seem to hold a mysterious message. Life is filled with disappointments for Sonja, who seems to ask for so little yet receive even less, but she’s no wet lettuce; her life is filled with small, satisfying rebellions.

There’s a touch of satire in the treatment of Sonja’s career as a translator of fashionable Scandi-noir crime fiction. The misogynist fantasies of bestselling Gösta Svensson are lapped up by legions of female fans, all savouring ‘the angry ejaculations, the mutilated vaginas, the ritual adornment of evil’. Even her remote, unfathomable sister, Kate, is proud of the connection with literary fame, but Sonja can’t see the appeal in books that function only as ‘a crossword puzzle with sperm and maggots’.

Lacking a robust world-view herself, Sonja is oppressed by those of others, and is particularly shaken by a brief encounter with a fortune-teller, who, she believes, effectively robbed her of a future. If you don’t believe in the occult, she observes, you have no defence against it. Her new-age masseuse continually reads signs of trauma in her pinched muscles, and recommends she stands with her hands forming a funnel above her head ‘so the universe can dribble energy’ into her. The only thing that will heal Sonja, though, is when she breaks through into authentic action; when she stops behaving the way everyone else expects her to.

Necessarily, in a life and a novel this size, her moments of epiphany will be small ones, easily overlooked. She longs to rediscover the sense of freedom she had when she was a child, escaping into a field of rye, but there’s something intangible about such moments, and besides, the farm’s been broken up and sold. Driving, the conventional answer to lack of mobility, merely catapults her into more difficult scenarios: ‘How do you hide from people who make themselves angry just to feel alive?’

Nors’s downbeat tale proceeds by implication and observation rather than plot, yet Sonja’s quietly spirited thoughts make the journey worthwhile, and her every tiny act of defiance is something to cherish.