Rating 4 stars
Dorthe Nors’ fifth novel examines the crisis of middle age as experienced by a single woman estranged from her sister and trying to work out what she wants from life. It’s a funny and moving book, with a deadpan humour that wrong foots the reader from time to time with its seriousness.
Sonja has reached the age where she tells herself that she doesn’t need people to always get along and realises that she can’t make them get along. And yet. She can’t stop wishing that her sister liked her, and she can’t stop worrying that she’s offended people who don’t really matter, because they are incidental to her life.
We learn who Sonja is through her thoughts during her driving lessons, first with the controlling Jytte and then with the laid-back and crush-worthy Folke, and during her massage therapy sessions with the pseudomystical Ellen. Sonja is a solid person who is drifting and trying to find a way to belong.
Almost everyone is trying to control Sonja, from Jytte, who won’t let her change gear, and Ellen, who forces her into sharing things Sonja would rather not share, to her schoolfriend Molly, who persuaded her to leave their Jutland backwater for a new life in Copenhagen and later tries to persuade her into more socially acceptable ways of being, and her family, most of whom don’t want Sonja to be herself but would prefer her to be more conventional.
I liked Sonja and her determination to plough her own furrow. I liked her introversion, her spontaneous flights from groups of too many people, the way she finds comfort in observing others over a slice of cake, free from the obligation of engaging with them, and her way of looking at the world.
Nors has a beautiful way with words, an ear for a turn of phrase that paints a picture. Her description of an imminent thunderstorm building over an amusement park is perfect.
A vast exchange commences between the earth and sky. A barrel organ grinds and one-armed bandits prattle away in tongues electronic, but in the background Sonja hears a throb. The sulfur in the sky dissipates and turns purple.
These descriptions of the environment around Sonja punctuate her inner world, creating a backdrop to what is going on inside her head. The idea of storms as vast exchanges becomes shorthand for impactful moments in Sonja’s life, too.
Inside her head is a place where Sonja spends a lot of time, as introverts tend to do. She reveals that it’s a trait that she gets from her mother, and that society has a view on women like them.
“I’m like my mom,” says Sonja. “We’ve got these rich, expansive inner worlds. We’re quite intelligent. But as women, we’re not completely fine-tuned.”
This really interested me. I am an introvert. I understand a lot of what Sonja as a character thinks, feels and experiences. I don’t think the sense of not being fine-tuned to what society expects of people is a gendered thing, though. I think it’s a personality thing. I still haven’t read Quiet, but when I read Shrinking Violets a few years ago I appreciated the core attitude that shy people and introverts, who are not necessarily the same thing, share – the need to not be constantly talking. The world we inhabit seems to prize babble over the well placed word. Introverts and shy people disagree, and consequently we don’t always fit in with the world around us. When we do share our thoughts, it’s often not superficial enough for the moment and we end up seeming off-kilter or out of step.
Sonja’s non-compliance with the wider world is rooted as much in the community she comes from, which is depicted as a traditional, agricultural one, a little bit backward perhaps, as it is in her introversion. Sonja doesn’t do the conventional thing of staying home, marrying a local man and starting a family. She leaves. She heads to the city. You might think that cities offer opportunities to meet like-minded people, but actually cities can be the hardest places to make a home for introverts. It’s an effort to get out there and join things, putting yourself through the babble beloved of the bold in the hope of finding people who will become friends. Sonja is also at a disadvantage because she is self-employed, a translator of a male writer’s misogynistic crime fiction, so she doesn’t have the convenience of office society. She has her driving lessons and her massage therapy sessions and not much else, it seems. Whatever friendships she made during her university years have fallen away as people’s lives have changed.
Sonja takes us through her past, memory by memory, piecing together the trajectory of her alienation from home and the chaos of finding her place in Copenhagen. Her relationship with her sister looms large, littered with misunderstanding and emotional letters never sent. Her litany of failed relationships, too – the majority experiences of making do because nothing else is on offer. The relationship that Sonja gives significance to was an infatuation on her side with a charismatic man who used her until someone younger and more adoring came along.
Through Sonja’s encounters with Ellen, Nors says something about the need to talk that is different to the babble of the everyday. Ellen’s take on therapy is mixed up with the sort of nonsense around alternative healing that people like Gwyneth Paltrow peddle. Mixed in with the idea that toxins build up in body tissues and cause physical illnesses that can only really be healed by standing in a circle around a self-styled shaman who has charged you and all the other people a fortune for access to their bunkum, is the idea that talking to someone about how you are feeling can help improve your mental health. Through Sonja’s abortive attempts to connect with her sister, by phone and through letters never sent, Nors also raises the idea that honesty in communication, although scary because we don’t know how our truth will be received, is healthier than going through life expressing ourselves in ways we think other people will accept. Everyone trying to performatively be the way we’ve somehow collectively decided society wants us to be can only work for those who genuinely are that person, if that model citizen actually exists. For everyone else, the grind of covering our true selves over is exhausting.
Perhaps that’s a very introverted take on it. Perhaps extraverts glide along untroubled by the need to perform. Any extraverts reading, please let me know in the comments.
Nors also picks up on the psychological damage this need to perform can cause. She has Sonja articulate what it feels like to have a panic attack, what it’s like when anxiety manifests physically.
Sonja’s stopped breathing with her abdomen. Her breathing sits at the top of her ribcage. It’s pistoning up and down, her fingers buzzing, her nose too. … She herself is hyperventilating. She could get into a situation that she simply can’t get out of. … and now she can feel its onset again, the crying.
It sticks in her throat like a teasel. It’s on the point of shooting up and out of her face. Her face is a sieve that would let water trickle right out, and she has to focus to shut it off.
Things eventually come into a kind of focus for Sonja. She takes her first steps in not pleasing other people and standing up for herself. At the end of the book, she hasn’t worked out what it will take to please herself, but Nors leaves an open enough ending to hope that she will.