Two books about Learning to Drive…

My bike – a Honda CB250RS. A lightweight sporty number.

While reading the first of this pair, I was perusing my shelves and found another book that was nominally about starting late in ‘learning to drive’ so the obvious thing was to read both and review them together.

These books were especially appropriate to my own situation – I didn’t take my car driving test until I was forty, and I was seven months pregnant!

I hasten to add, I’d had a motorbike licence for about 18 years, although I only had a bike for the first four or so years of those. However, I still love having been a biker chick for a bit.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors

Translated by Misha Hoekstra

Nors is the latest star of Danish literature and this novel has been shortlisted for the 2017 International Man Booker Prize.

Sonja is a translator of Swedish crime novels, single again at over forty. She’s trying to move on in her life. Finally learning to drive would be a really good start. She signs up to lessons at a local driving school, but is assigned Jytte as a tutor. Jytte is a poor teacher, she never stops talking and won’t let Sonja change gear in the dual-control car, resulting in many near misses:

Jytte’s stomped on the brake and clutch. They’re stopped at a pedestrian crossing, staring at a frightened man in a windbreaker.
“You have to stop for people!” Jytte says.
“I know that,” Sonja says.
“It doesn’t fucking look that way,” Jytte says, and she releases the clutch, first, second. (p12)

To unwind after her driving lessons and translation work, Sonja has regular massages from Ellen at her clinic:

“Your buttocks are hard,” Ellen says. “That’s because, if you’ll pardon a vulgar phrase, you’re a tight-ass with your feelings. An emotional tight-ass, a tight-fisted tightwad. Can’t you hear how everything’s right there int he words?”
With the job Sonja has, that’s something she knows quite well. Languuage is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest alteration can elevate a sentence or be its undoing. (p18)

Sonja is finding it hard to get anywhere. She plucks up courage to ask Folke, the owner of the driving school to change instructors – and ends up with him teaching her himself which is a whole different kettle of fish. Sonja agrees to go on a meditation hike with Ellen and her friends – but bottles it before they’ve gone very far. She does keep trying to talk to her sister, but there are barriers between them – Sonja was the one who moved away to the city, who got qualifications – their lives only intersect in Kate’s penchant for reading the gory crime novels that Sonja translates. Sonja can’t help reminiscing about being back in Balling, Jutland – farming country where there are wide open marshes and swans. What is she to do? Added to all this, Sonja is suffering from an inherited vertigo condition that affects her balance when she makes sudden movements, it could affect her getting her licence so she hasn’t told anyone.

It’s this loss of balance that pervades the novel in all aspects of Sonja’s life giving it a very wistful feel, but enlivened with much humour. You can’t help but hope she manages to overcome her stasis and find a way to stop being invisible, not to give in to loneliness. I can’t quite put a finger on why, but this novel reminded me of those of Amelie Nothumb, but less vicious.

The pedant in me rebels slightly though – every time I see the cover and the book’s title, I think – it should be ‘Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre’ as we’re taught in the UK. The look back over one’s shoulder is however hammered home to motorcyclists where it is known as the ‘lifesaver’. (9/10)

Source: Own copy.  Dorthe Nors, Mirror Shoulder Signal (Pushkin, 2017) 188 pages, paperback original.

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Learning to Drive by William Norwich

Legendary New York editor Norwich (Vogue, Phaidon Books etc) has just published his second novel, My Mrs Brown, (inspired by Paul Gallico’s Mrs Harris books apparently), twenty years after his first. I’ve had to order it – for I loved his 1996 debut Learning to Drive!

My copy came from a charity shop, and not only does the cover come with an endorsement from Jay McInerney urging the reader to ‘Test drive it today’, but an inscription inside reads ‘with love and a smile. W xxx’.

This is the story of Julian Orr, 37, a New York journalist at a glossy mag. His therapist is urging him to learn to drive so he can visit his parents’ graves in Connecticut, where he spent his childhood – he needs closure. Julian books lessons at a local driving school, and eventually he’s ready to take his test, just three weeks before his learner’s permit expires. On the appointed day, the instructor who was to take him to the test centre, calls in sick. He has to pull strings to get a cancellation, the test appointments are like golddust, but Julian will have to take his test in Brooklyn rather than Yonkers….

“Don’t worry; it’ll all work out,” the shrink said when I told him the story.
“Hasn’t it been a year? Maybe it’s an omen,” Ines remarked.
What came next was unpredictable. When I tell the story, I try to tell it lightly. “Oh, yes, I unraveled in broad daylight on the Belt Parkway,” I might say.
The newspaper accounts tell a much different story. (p19)

Once more, the appointed morning arrives. Julian is ready, and waiting for Hector the instructor to pick him up. They have to allow 90 minutes for the journey over into Brooklyn. The phone rings. It’s Hector, who says he’s not coming. Julian is now ready to panic – he hurriedly sets off on foot for the driving school where he has to wait for the owner to open up. The manager promises that Hector will be there soon.

We waited for Hector; the manager of the driving school began to ask me about several local celebrities and became rather animated. Did I know Donald Trump, he wondered.
“Do I know Donald Trump?” I answered and rehashed whatever tidbits I could remember as we waited for Hector. (p31)

Eventually, Hector arrives in a really bad mood. They set off.  Julian discovers that there is a small girl hiding in the back of the car. Also, it becomes clear that Hector has no idea where he’s going, and his driving is extremely erratic. Hector also starts to harangue Julian, calling him a faggot and hitting him. Thus locked into the car with a madman, Julian’s day becomes a hellish nightmare, escalating all the while.

This novel is told in many short chapters of a few pages each. Alternating between Julian’s day of reckoning with Hector, are episodes from his childhood, including going out for drives with his father, however his father dies and a few years later his mother follows  – Julian is only just a teenager.  Julian as narrator tells these sections with tenderness and poignancy. He recalls the golden days of his childhood biking with his best friend Mike, wistfully contrasting with the sad deaths of his parents.

Julian plays it for laughs though in his shocking ordeal with Hector, recounting each new assault and crash with a certain amount of swagger and wisecracking. At the end of it, he is relieved to have survived. It’s so awful it is hilarious. Norwich’s mid 1990s New York is one we can all recognise from Woody Allen, McInerney and countless movies. I loved this short novel. It’s punchy, funny and melancholy in just the right measure. (10/10)

Source: Own copy.  William Norwich, Learning to Drive (Headline Review, 1996) paperback, 214 pages.

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To conclude: Apart from the main subject, these two novels, which appear different on the surface, actually have many similarities underneath. Both have a good sense of place – both in the present and the past – contrasting city life against childhood in the country.  Obviously, the protagonists are of similar ages, both going through a bit of a mid-life crisis – but there is optimism there too. Nors’ Sonja is a more gentle narrator than Norwich’s Julian, although Sonja does have her moments, but both are sympathetic characters that can surprise and move us. Both brilliant novels, but the Norwich just tipped it for me.

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