This Should be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle, book review: Mysteries of a mundane life

There is still something magnetic about the comforting familiarities and mysteries of other people’s mundane lives

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The Independent Culture

Near the end of the multiple award-winning Danish author Helle Helle’s first novel to be translated into English, the female narrator Dorte, an aspiring writer, is given advice on how to pen fiction by another would-be writer.

“I’m always asking myself why does this have to be there ... And if I can’t find a reason, it goes ... Anything can go into a text ... but there has to be a reason.” Dorte, an uncompromising 20-year-old, disagrees. And so, by the looks of it, does her creator. Helle Helle’s novel is packed full of the minutiae of life, focusing on the ordinary existence of an unexceptional young woman. But devoid of major incident and strangely muted as it is, it is still quaffable, the short chapters describing the actions and sensations of a normal life: eating, drinking coffee, failing to sleep, meeting her aunt, avoiding her parents.

Dorte has moved into a bungalow while she allegedly studies at Copenhagen University. But she doesn’t attend her course. Instead, she drifts, wandering around making impulse buys and relationships. We glimpse remarkably little of her emotions unless she is with her adored aunt, also called Dorte.

We know that she makes rash choices of sexual partner from time to time, and we can see that she falls in love with one of these men. But the main sensations described are physical ones: sight, smell, touch, taste, sound: the sun beating down on skin;  the calls of birds; the musty smell of the charity shop; the feel of cobbles and spongy, mossy lawns under her feet.

There is a passivity to Dorte. Things happen to her. Strangers come to use her phone and end up eating her chips, staying the night and borrowing money from her. Her married neighbour comes round for sex. When the man she loves leaves her, she ends up having joyless sex with his flatmate.

The reader can sense an emptiness in her: “I didn’t know what to do with myself or how to go on.” She writes a story about a dead woman.

When she is not in love, the reader gets the impression that Dorte feels pretty dead herself; a not uncommon state in young adults where burgeoning sexuality and the urge to find love may result in feeling  lost.

This understated, sparely written novel is uncluttered by the gush and clatter of much fiction about ordinary people: no noisy family scenes, arguments or trivial chit-chat.

It is an easy novel to become immersed in. It lacks the biting insights of Rachel Cusk or the detailed dissection of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s memoirs, but there is still something magnetic about the comforting familiarities and mysteries of other people’s mundane lives.

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