First thoughts: This Should be Written in the Present Tense

TWENTY year-old Dorte has just moved to Glumso, renting a small cottage very close to a steadily busy railway line. 

It is basic and cramped, but the rent is low and the location is ideally situated for an easy commute in and out of Copenhagen, where she is enrolled in college courses.

She spends her days boarding buses and trains but largely avoiding the campus, preferring instead to roam the streets, shopping, drinking coffee, eating and sitting around. At home, she cooks the simplest possible meals and struggles with an increasingly gripping insomnia.

She is alone, partly by choice, partly because she has become lost in life. 

Her parents lurk occasionally on the periphery, but she pushes them away, and she is close only to her aunt, also named Dorte, a generous heart who runs a successful sandwich shop but who, at 45, being divorced, unable to have children and endlessly unlucky in love, might as well act as a glimpse of the narrator’s own future.

The young Dorte has history, too, which she unfurls in mainly short, staggered chapters that rock the narrative back and forth in time. History that includes Per, a young man with whom she enjoys her first real romance, and whose parents welcome her into their world. 

With Per she settles down, lets herself be loved, and builds on vague aspirations of becoming a writer by penning party songs to meet a surprisingly ever-increasing demand.

Even an aborted pregnancy does little to interrupt the surface idyll. That she wants more only becomes apparent when she is introduced to Per’s cousin, Lars, a teacher-in-training who has just returned from a stint in America and is living in a nearby town. 

Surrendering safety and familial love, she is soon living in secret with Lars, until this, too, runs its course.

In Glumso, there is a sense of being caught between worlds. Trains pass through, coming from somewhere and always on their way to somewhere else. 

The station-master, who lives with his stern girlfriend in an apartment opposite Dorte’s, is a quick flirt and they soon fall into an affair as a way of filling vacant moments. 

And there is a young man from a reading group, a would-be poet, that seems to offer some hope for a future beyond these pages.

In a career now spanning nine books over nearly a quarter of a century, the multi-award winning Helle Helle has long since established herself as probably Denmark’s most critically acclaimed novelist and short story writer, and one of the most stylistically original and compulsively readable authors in all of Nordic literature.

Quite astonishing then that even though her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages, she is only just now reaching English-speaking audiences.

This Should be Written in the Present Tense is a remarkable novel because of how it revels in life’s minutiae as a way of avoiding emotional engagement. 

Ultimately, this is a first-person account that attempts — with rare subtlety and ultimately, providing the reader has the patience to fully invest in the text, great success — to make sense of the chaos and the daunting dread that can accompany arrival into adulthood, of feeling inconsequential and ill-fitting for the wider world.

Helle’s declarative sentences are a kind of cold steel, lacking all sentimentality, lacking even emotion, yet it is from this very lack that the psychological make-up and state of the narrator is revealed, or at least laid bare. 

This is one of those slightly-plotted novels that packs its real story between the lines and, in believing that power of suggestion goes a long way, trusts a great deal to the intelligence of the reader. Such faith deserves to be rewarded with a wide audience.

This Should be Written in the Present Tense

Helle Helle (translated by Martin Aitken)

Vintage, €12.75; Kindle, €6.72

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