This week’s read, as part of my summer challenge named Around Europe in 14 Books, has taken me from Norway to Denmark. The novel I am reviewing is This Should Be Written in the Present Tense, Helle Helle’s first novel to be translated into English.
For the first time, there aren’t going to be many positives in this review. As soon as I started reading the book, I felt that it was underwhelming, and it didn’t improve a lot by the end.
It had to happen, at some point. I tend to choose books by reading the description featured on the cover and I try to avoid seeing people’s reviews or ratings (even if I do see them, they don’t affect me). So, from its cover, any book can seem good but it’s the reading experience that counts in the end.
I will try my best to keep the review balanced, though, because I don’t like writing outright negative comments.
Read the previous posts:
Around Europe in 14 Books – #4: Denmark
This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle
Original name: Dette burde skrives i nutid (Danish)
Author: Helle Helle
Translator: Martin Aitken
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Genre: women’s fiction, literary fiction
Location: various locations on the island of Zealand, Denmark
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Dorte is twenty and pretending to study literature at Copenhagen University.
In fact, she is cut off and adrift, living in a backwater in a bungalow by the rail tracks, riding the trains, clocking up random encounters.
She remembers her ex Per – who had wanted to grow old with her, who had stood in tears on the driveway as she left – as a new world opens up: one of transient relationships, casual lovers, and awkward attempts to write.
This Should Be Written in the Present Tense is a novel for anyone who has ever been young, sleepless, and a little reckless, trying to figure it all out.
The protagonist and narrator of the story is Dorte. We only discover her name after several chapters, when she explains how she was named after her aunt, who couldn’t have children of her own.
According to everyone around her, Dorte is a university student in Copenhagen. However, she just spends her days wandering around places, occasionally meeting strangers. She also spends time in and around her rented bungalow, which she doesn’t care to decorate with curtains. As if she’s ready to move out again.
Throughout all the book, Dorte narrates her daily life. We see how she goes from one place to another without a precise aim and how she buys random things, sometimes without even wanting or needing to. She even doesn’t seem consciously want her relationship with her neighbour, a young man who lives with his girlfriend and works at the station’s ticket office. Dorte is clearly the kind of young person who doesn’t know what to want in life.
The backstory of Dorte is weaved within the narration of the present. It mainly focuses on the period when she lived with her boyfriend Per in his parents’ house. She eventually left him, without much explanation, to live with his cousin Lars. From there, she started drifting from one place to another, from one person to another.
This novel is not the classic plot-driven story. In fact, there is hardly any plot. Each chapter is simply a descriptive sequence of mundane details. It reads like a monotonous diary of someone’s actions throughout the day. The writing style too is nothing special. It is as bare as Dorte’s curtainless accommodation. I could pick any page to quote from, to show you what I mean. Here is one example:
Afterwards I sat down in the armchair in the front room with a needle and thread and tried to mend my jeans. I was no good at it. I put the TV on and watched a gardening programme and later on the football while I ate most of a packet of biscuits. Towards evening I fell asleep in the chair, my head kept nodding to one side. Eventually, I lay down on the floor and slept there far too long, clutching a cushion with my mouth half open. (page 15)
The above paragraph continues in the same vein for another 9 lines. It felt like I was reading something I wrote (and I’m largely ignorant of creative writing skills). The only events that cut the monotonous narration of Dorte’s current life are mostly random and often do not influence the course of the story or the character’s feelings in any way.
The description of mundane details contrasts the lack of focus on the protagonist’s inner feelings. During half of the book, I couldn’t quite understand what Dorte’s emotional state was. It is only in the second half that we get to see more of what she thinks and how she’s affected by some events around her, such as the casual relationship with her neighbour. One can even note the difference in the latter half of the novel structure-wise, as the chapters – which were initially very short – are now better fleshed out.
It is the lack of psychological depth of the main character, coupled with the simplistic description of ordinary everyday actions, that made it hard for me to digest this book.
However, it is not a matter of bad writing. It is just a stylistic choice which characterises Helle Helle’s storytelling, something that I could confirm after reading some reviews. The author prefers to tell something in a few, essential sentences without embellishments. This opinion is voiced by a prospective writer, whom Dorte and her friend Hase meet for feedback on their poetry. This writer says:
I’m always asking myself, why does this have to be there, why does that have to be there? And if I can’t find a reason, it goes. (page 182-3)
That is Helle Helle’s writing style in a nutshell. It makes us understand the way this novel was written and it’s actually an opinion that makes sense and which can help other writers. By the way, this part only comes in the penultimate chapter. Knowing that Dorte is a budding writer and resting on the book’s title, I was expecting more talk about the art of writing. But all I got was Dorte writing party songs and attempting to rhyme words. Again, I wished there was more, not less.
In any case, this particular technique goes well with this kind of story. After all, Dorte is a young woman who is at a critical point in life. She doesn’t know what she wants or how she’s supposed to find what she wants. Therefore, the story goes nowhere, just as the main character seems to be going nowhere. Apart from that, one has to keep in mind that Dorte is the narrator of her own story, so she decides what to show and what not. She chooses to dwell on mundane details and shuns away from significant events of her life that deserve more serious ponderance as if she is not ready to face her own emotions.
Liking This Should Be Written in the Present Tense is a matter of personal taste. I know that subjectivity always plays a part, in everything, but with his novel, the reader has to be considerably open-minded in order to appreciate it. My rating has an extra star only because I am genuinely interested in different narrative techniques. After discovering Helle Helle’s writing style through reviews, I cannot say whether this book is badly written or badly translated, so I accept it as the author’s intention of writing it that way. It doesn’t mean that I like it. I found it difficult to read; sometimes I even had to reread a whole paragraph to understand what was going on because it was too boring to take in.
Besides the style, there wasn’t any story to appreciate. It left me with nothing to think about or to cherish. I doubt I will ever remember this book at all. I cannot prefer it over the quiet and heartwarming narration of Ólafsdóttir’s The Greenhouse, nor prefer its style over Erlend Loe’s witty sentence structure.
So, it is not easy for me to recommend this novel. If I assume that many readers are after plot-driven stories with characters that grow by the end of the book, then I definitely cannot suggest it. Yet if you are open-minded and curious about discovering international literature and diverse writing styles, you can give it a try. Who knows, maybe the narration of a restless, confused youth might strike a chord with you.