2 First-Rate Novels Celebrate The Humor And Heroism Of Unconventional Women

Jun 20, 2018
Originally published on June 20, 2018 4:11 pm
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This is FRESH AIR. Our critic at large John Powers always keeps an eye out for new translations of foreign fiction. He's recently come across two internationally acclaimed novels - "Mirror, Shoulder, Signal" by the Danish novelist Dorthe Nors and "Convenience Store Woman" by the Japanese writer Sayaka Murata. He says they aren't only a pleasure to read, but both offer a perceptive look at the lives of women who break the cultural mold.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Modern fiction is teeming with characters who don't fit comfortably into the world they inhabit. I grew up enthralled by self-absorbed male outsiders like Holden Caulfield in the beats. But over the years, I've come to find greater depth and variation in stories about women the world routinely ignores, be it the wry spinsters and Barbara Pym's fiction or the poor, defiantly unconventional Sula who gives her name to Toni Morrison's great early novel. You can add to this list the heroines of two first-rate new novels, one from Denmark, the other from Japan, by literary stars in their home countries. Although different in style, both books are brief and often hilarious. And because they're tinted with autobiography, both are exceedingly smart about single women past the first flush of youth.

"Mirror, Shoulder, Signal" is the latest novel by the Danish writer Dorthe Nors, who possesses a rare gift. She treats heavy, dark matters with a very light touch. Her heroine is Sonja, who grew up in the Jutland boondocks but moved to Copenhagen in search of a grander life. Now in her 40s, she's alone. Her boyfriend has dumped her. She suffers from vertigo. And she spends her life translating gory crime novels that everyone but her seems to love.

Fearing that she's becoming a solitary weirdo, she decides to enroll in a local driving school, where - metaphor alert - she has trouble shifting gears for herself. At first, Sonja's story seems like a nifty social comedy. She has amusing scenes with her angry, foul-mouthed female driving teacher, who spouts the lane-changing mantra, mirror, shoulder, signal, and with the new-age massage therapist that she visits after being stressed out by those behind-the-wheel lessons.

But the novel soon deepens, carrying us into Sonja's more stinging emotions. These involve her love of the Jutland countryside and her painful estrangement from her married sister. All the while, Sonja casts a skeptical eye on orderly, prosperous Copenhagen, where, lurking beneath its comforts, one keeps finding dissatisfaction. Unable to shift, the fretful Sonja finds herself caught in a no woman's land, eager to escape loneliness, yet incapable of reaching the people she yearns to reach.

So what, if anything, should she do? That's the question the novel proposes. And one suspects that Nors, a single woman born in Jutland who once translated crime novels, knows just how thorny any answer must be.

A similar form of alienation gets deliciously perverse treatment in "Convenience Store Woman," a massive bestseller that won its author, Sayaka Murata, Japan's biggest literary prize. Its narrator, Keiko, has been written off as a misfit ever since, as a little girl, she found a dead bird in the park and suggested that the family grill it as yakitori. She yearns to know the secret of acting just like everyone else. And at 18, she discovers it when she's mysteriously drawn to a soon-to-open convenience store called the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart, and she applies for a job.

In Japan, convenience stores are tiny wonderlands and almost the quintessence of the mainstream, equal parts 7-Eleven, McDonald's and Starbucks. Working at Smile Mart, Keiko learns the official rules and rituals of being a good convenience store woman. What to do and how to talk is spelled out for you. She becomes a model employee who mimics the style of her favorite co-workers, and so she works there happily for 18 years. Then the store hires a male employee who's an even bigger misfit than she is, and things start to change.

Now, Murata herself spent years as a convenience store employee. And one pleasure of this book is her detailed portrait of how such a place actually works. Yet the book's true brilliance lies in Murata's way of subverting our expectations.

It's not simply that Keiko finds liberation, even happiness, by becoming a cog in the capitalist machine, an unsettling idea when you think about it. Murata also makes us see how the family members who find her love of the store's rituals strange are themselves trapped within a set of rules - dress this way, don't talk like that, get married and have kids. But unlike her, they - and maybe we - don't know it.

Near the end of "Mirror, Shoulder, Signal," Sonja meets an old woman who talks about how one survives while not fitting into the slot that society has for you. You live with it, she says, and you find your ways. With bracing good humor, Nors and Murata celebrate the quiet heroism of women who accept the cost of being themselves.

DAVIES: John Powers writes about TV and film for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "Mirror, Shoulder, Signal" by Dorthe Nors and "Convenience Store Woman" by Sayaka Murata. On tomorrow's show, we'll talk with Vanity Fair writer Emily Jane Fox, who spent the last year investigating Ivanka Trump and her siblings. Her book "Born Trump: Inside America's First Family" includes intimate portraits of Trump's older children, who didn't expect their father to win the 2016 election. Hope you can join us.

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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. Terry Gross returns tomorrow. I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.