Book review of “A Line in the World” by Dorthe Nors



At the very tip of the North Jutland peninsula, a windswept sandbar narrows into the shape of an arrow before fading into the sea. Known locally as Grenen, a Danish word meaning “the branch,” the beach there provides a perspective unlike any other in the world. It is the place where the North Sea meets the Baltic Sea in an extraordinary, often violent embrace.

In those waters, boats glide through one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Across the straits, to the east, the lights of Gothenburg, Sweden, twinkle; Oslo’s harbor lies to the north; to the west, the Norwegian fjords rise out of the horizon. The seas form a sort of Scandinavian triangulation, at once connecting and separating the countries.

The peninsula is not only Denmark’s terminus but also the ultimate stop on a reflective journey that writer and translator Dorthe Nors undertook while writing her first memoir, “A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast.” A finalist for the Man Booker International Prize for her works of fiction, Nors is one of Denmark’s best-known living writers. For this more personal endeavor, deftly translated by Caroline Waight, Nors turned to the landscape she grew up in, a place where she feels both connected and separate, where she can be as moody and expansive as the sea itself.

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The resulting travelogue captures a side to Denmark that few will find familiar — the literal and figurative opposite of the country’s cosmopolitan capital, Copenhagen. In the Copenhagen captured by 18th-century painters, Nors writes, the “nation’s true nature” could be found: “a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, a Biedermeier idyll, bare of squalls, wilderness and drifting sands.” The city’s contemporary postcard-perfect image has become a more urbanized version of those paintings, the bicycle thoroughfares and rows of colorful harborfront houses a contrast to the western coast’s sand dunes and ocean views and acres of farmland filled with the sounds of gulls.

Yet it is in Copenhagen — a place where, she notes, time is laborious — that the story begins. Nors determines that the life she’d been drawn to in the city no longer held its charms; she trades in a fast-paced existence in an apartment above a hash dealer, with a view overlooking a hair salon, and returns to the quieter, more picturesque Jutland of her youth. As she explores seaside villages that appear both recognizable and foreign, long-forgotten memories from her childhood summers spent near the coast arise, as do the suspicions of some of the locals. “I don’t belong here,” she writes, her discomfort at the villagers’ reception of her (or lack thereof) palpable. “But I have roots here.”

Those roots are visible in the anecdotes Nors sprinkles throughout the memoir, with each of its 14 essays devoted to a different section of the unforgiving North Sea coast. Acknowledging that memory is a “tenacious ghost,” Nors relates snippets from her youth — the way she watched a man catch fire at a Midsummer festival; the time her mother disappeared for a week to learn art in a private studio; her father’s startled reaction to watching on television as the Skarre Cliff disappeared into the ocean during a storm in 1978.

She intertwines her stories with the history of the region, retelling the tales of the Vikings who once traversed the North Sea and whose shipwrecks are still being uncovered in the deep. Later, along the Iron Coast, she writes about boats run aground or tossed by tall waves into the shore. “Mass graves up and down the whole coast,” Nors writes with a whiff of foreboding. In a similar spirit, she studies the bunkers and fortifications that once made up the Nazis’ planned Atlantic Wall, contemplating the remnants of their doomed attempt to protect the entirety of the western European coastline from perceived military threats. Though the project succumbed to the elements and geopolitics, the Germans’ endeavor scarred the landscape and left the shoreline dotted with land mines for decades — buried traces of fascist hubris.

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Though these memorable historical tidbits are among the most visceral details in her work, “A Line in the World” is as much an appraisal of this troublingly beautiful landscape as it is an exploration of Nors’s identity. In her attempt to understand the shapeshifting Danish peninsula, combing over the history, traditions and myths of the region, she is making sense of this world and her place within it. Returning home with a renewed desire to leave forces that confrontation between childhood dreams and adult realities for Nors, who ultimately describes herself as “a movement pinned in one place.”

In that sense, this is no tourist’s guide to Denmark’s relatively barren coastline. Instead of dwelling on overfamiliar marketing concepts like hygge or references to Nobu, as writers fresh to Denmark often do, Nors reflects on the vital specificity of a place not often frequented by visitors, as well as its impact on the psyche.

Capturing how the locals simply live, she details, for example, the legend behind the porcelain dogs she sees dotting the windows in one fishing village. After a woman went missing years ago, residents burst into her apartment to find she had left behind a robust collection of porcelain dogs. Thinking that she may have wandered into the waves and vanished, villagers now place a pair facing outward to signify when a fisherman is out to sea; turned inward, they are a symbol that he has returned safely home.

Such details provide rare insight into a region where daily life is often spent in monotonous solitude and where tourists and new residents alike can find it difficult to break through the tough facades; where the slower tempo of life is driven by the sea and its moods, the rhythms tethered to a predictable yet finicky tide. Indeed, it seems that here the tide determines not only when boats can sail but also everything else: Births peak when the water rolls in, deaths register as it recedes. Yet the “fierce forces at play,” Nors reminds us in story after story, can toss away centuries-old constructs, sinking entire cities or swallowing churches and homes in blowing sand.

Just as the sands literally shift and the coastline changes from “painfully flat” to “incomprehensibly epic,” so, too, does Nors’s response to the region. There are days, midwinter, when daylight never seems to break. Increasingly aware of the way her mood is affected by the landscape, Nors excavates the feeling of disquiet that arises within her through a consideration of her personal narrative. “You’ve got to be careful with the stories you tell other people,” she writes. “And you’ve got to be careful what stories you tell yourself.”

It is in these terms that the book can be read as a memoir, scarce as revelatory details about the author may be. But “A Line in the World” is, more pointedly, one of the first books to capture the unique region in English. In prose that is as sparse and quiet as the marshy Jutland peninsula itself, the book provides a snapshot of life in a location that is full of history and at the same time ever-shifting, its future uncertain.

Courtney Tenz, a lover of the Atlantic Ocean, writes about European travel and culture from her home in Germany.

A Year on the North Sea Coast

By Dorthe Nors, trans. Caroline Waight

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