A review of the novel This Should be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle
The publishers of this book offer the following teaser: “This should be written in the present tense. But it isn’t. Dorte should be at uni in Copenhagen. But she’s not. She should probably put some curtains up in her new place. And maybe stop sleeping with her neighbor’s boyfriend. Perhaps things don’t always work out the way they should.” To this, I only would add “or do they?”
Once again, I was attracted to this book by how unusual it sounded, and I wasn’t wrong, it is particularly unique. Admittedly, while reading this novel, there were times I felt uncomfortable with its aimlessness. However, this was more because of the way the stories from the past and the account of the present seemed to meld into one another than the fact that, essentially “nothing happens.” Certainly, this is what all the detractors of this book will say, but I have to somewhat disagree.
When I say, “somewhat” I mean that as far as action goes, there really isn’t very much, both internally and externally. Dorte seems to hover on the edges of her life, drifting from place to place and man to man. Sometimes the place she goes to brings her a man and sometimes it is a man who moves her to another place. As for why she is like this, we are never sure, although some incidents Dorte recalls certainly must have had something to do with her itinerant and random habits. Strangely enough, the beauty of this story is that whatever that thing was, is almost entirely irrelevant to the book as a whole.
Essentially, this is a personal account, and that makes it an introspective character study. What Dorte sees and remembers is secondary to how she feels and reacts to those things. While she seems ephemeral, there is constancy in both her outlook and demeanor, which unfortunately works to her detriment. However, as depressing as that sounds, there is still an undercurrent of positivity throughout this book, which just barely tinges the text.
If all this sounds a bit vague, I’m sorry, but there is just no other way to talk about this book. Because of this, some people will probably dismiss this novel completely. I would urge them to reconsider this, mainly because of the writing, or rather, the translation. Originally written in Danish, Helle Helle is one of their most popular award-winning authors, known for her minimalist style. Of the reviews I found for this book, the one I found matched my own feelings was from Weekendavisen, that said:
Some pieces of literature, no matter how great an effort you make as a critic, cannot be opened or captured in a way that does justice to the work. That’s how I feel about Helle Helle’s new and unusually precious novel… Most of the sentences are small works of art, containing a whole story in themselves.
I would further add that Helle practically whispers this story in gentle, soothing tones that soften any harshness underneath. If the original Danish comes off the same way, then the translator has done a stellar job.
Despite this, I have to admit that while Helle gently slides between Dorte’s present life and stories from her past, the lines between the two are sometimes slightly blurred. This means that readers might have trouble determining what passages refer to what time in Dorte’s life. I found this confusing in several instances and although it only took a line or two to get myself acclimated, this slightly detracted from the overall effortlessness feeling of the story. Even so, I still enjoyed this remarkable novel, and I believe that anyone looking for something truly distinctive to read will fall in love with this book. For all this, I’m going to give it a high recommendation with four out of five stars.
“This Should be Written in the Present Tense” by Helle Helle, published by Harvill Secker, a division of Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, release date November 6, 2014 is available for pre-order from The Book Depository. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance copy for review via NetGalley.