A Line in the World by Dorthe Nors 2021
Noted in the NYT Book Review holiday issue, this book is beautifully written and illustrated. The author whose novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize recently, is a Dane who grew up in Jutland, the major portion of Denmark. If Denmark is viewed as a left-handed mitten (like Michigan), Jutland is the four fingered part while Copenhagen is way down there at the base of the thumb. Nors grew up around the middle, rural section of Jutland in a home she calls the Secret Place.
This book chronicles her travels along the west coast of Jutland, which she refers to as the east coast of the North Sea. From the northernmost tip where one can see Norway across the strait down to the German border of Schleswig-Holstein and on down to Amsterdam, the coast comprises fjords, dunes, locks, islands, and the endless waves and constant wind off the Atlantic. Nors visits small towns, the Freisan Islands of Farno and Romo, many lighthouses, many churches (where she searches out frescoes that are sketched by Signe Parkins whose beautiful sketch provides the cover design), guest houses, pubs, and even Nazi bunkers built to withstand an Allied attack. She recounts the history from the Vikings’ expeditions from these shores over much of the world to the storm surges over the centuries that have drowned thousands and sunk hundreds of ships. The landscape is bleak and stark, but beauty is everywhere.
Nors writes with feeling and skill. This is how she describes the memories of her childhood in the hinterland: “Somewhere there’s a door leading to an archive of moments that have escape us.” and here’s how she contrasts her life in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Germany with her life on Fano and other coastal towns: “Civilization is a snapshot. Forces such as the sea’s, the wind’s, the rain’s, the ungraspability of the universe to say nothing of the Earth’s glowing core, compared to your reality, strung frail and taut between birth and death.” Here is Nabokov’s cradle swinging above the abyss again!
I was mostly drawn to this book because of my ever-romantic notion of the sea and the islands. The cover drawing evoked strong memories of our stays on Nantucket and the end of the road at Madaket as it points towards the western tip of the island at Smith’s Point. Nantucket with its billionaire mansions and fancy restaurants is a long way from the North Sea’s east coast, but the feeling on the beach is similar.
Read this book if you, too, fantasize about wandering the empty and isolated coasts of our world, closer to the waves and the wind than to any Starbucks.