I was happy to give Mark The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell as a requested Christmas gift last year. After he read it I wanted it next. It was originally published in 2015 and I was happy to buy the 2020 edition which included a new chapter. In 2013 the author moved to Billund, Denmark after her husband got a job at the Lego headquarters, located in the town. She left her job as editor of Marie Claire and embarked on a job as a freelancer, endeavouring to find out what made the Danes the happiest people in the world.
In a series of chapters divided by each month of the year and an accompanying theme, Russell discovered the ways of living Danishly. She interviewed Danish lifestyle experts, professionals, neighbours and regular Danes she met on the street. Russell discovered many reasons for overall Danish happiness, but a couple reasons stood out in particular: the Danish devotion to rules and to traditions. Whether discovering the rules about flying the Danish flag (the Dannebrog) or other national flags, the appropriate way to decorate a home, or why you’d kill a giraffe, Russell found humour in learning the Danish way of doing things. The fact that Denmark is a heavily taxed welfare state with a commitment to sexual equality and social progress is another reason for ensuring happiness among its people. As a workaholic magazine editor from London, the rural life of 34-hour workweeks was a culture shock at first. Russell and her husband had to discover the Danish way of leisure in a country where employees are treated as equals from the CEO on down, and the corporate rat race is a foreign concept. Why stay late at work when no one will give a damn (and likely reprimand you for doing so)? The Danes value their time away from work as crucial to their happiness, and extracurricular activities take up a large part of their lives. One of the funniest parts of the book was spent on describing the structured atmosphere of organized clubs. The Danish devotion to rules might rub some members the wrong way, however, resulting in a splintering of groups:
“…there are rival sewing clubs that all hate each other. Like the Sharks and the Jets but with needles. Terrifying.”
I found Russell’s tales of being a fish out of water to be a speedy and overall funny read. I even drew similarities between her experiences and my own when I lived in Finland during the summer of 2000. There were occasions when my inexperience with speaking the Finnish language–while trying to avoid using English–led to some humorous (or frustrating) reactions. I was laughing as I read about her experiences in her first Danish language class. After almost a year in Denmark she still found herself clueless when reading the language. Russell confessed that she would have been lost without Google Translate.
However there were three particular features in her writing that drove me crazy. Russell was a regular abuser of the lazy literary technique of stringing words together in elongated hyphenated descriptive phrases. This excess of hyphens is not only a pain to read but also unsightly to encounter on the printed page. It would be so much more elegant to read restructured sentences without any hyphens at all. I did not find the examples below to be captures of streams of consciousness, but awkward passages requiring multiple rereads:
“The snow has shifted up a gear, from gentle, Richard Curtis film-like flakes into snow-globe-being-shaken-vigorously-by-angry-toddler territory.”
“The bubble bursts and I swiftly dismiss the idea of spending the next twelve months cherishing his every wet-towels-on-the-bed and inability-to-locate-the-laundry-basket foible.”
Russell never named her husband and, after he got the job at Lego, referred to him every time as Lego Man, which was visually jarring and annoying as the joke wore off before page ten. Please, just refer to him by his name. Russell used nicknames for the people she encountered (yet named the professionals and experts she interviewed) and didn’t even name her seaside town, calling it Sticksville-on-Sea which was, aside from insulting, doubly annoying since it employed an excess of hyphens, her preferred form of punctuation. She managed to cover all three in one sentence with:
“‘We’re not in Sticksville now…’ I tell Lego Man as I inhale a truffle-dust-and-powdered-mushroom dish in one of the city’s smarter canal-side restaurants.”
Lastly, the editor she is should have caught the overuse in her propensity to refer to controversial or scandalous topics by the suffix -gate. I abhor this Watergate allusion, finding it a sign of a lazy writer. I read it once, then twice, yet by the third time, on page 117 (to “slaughter-gate”) I had had enough of it. And then I read it again on page 148 with a reference to “pole dancing-gate”; page 243 to “pain-reliefgate”; and page 317 to “Lars-Mette-Jens-gate” (italics in the original text). Six times is six times too many. Please, you’re an editor and an accomplished writer. Find some other way to describe scandalous topics.
I passed a few spelling errors–which my typical snobbish self will ignore here –but will not let her get away with “folk-rocker Stephen Sills” (when it should be Stills) and her reference to the Swiss flag as “slightly different to the Dannebrog, with a fatter white cross in the centre of a bright red rectangle”. The Swiss flag is a square.
These literary annoyances preclude me from giving The Year of Living Danishly a five-star review. I enjoy cultural tales such as this and Russell wrote in such a realistic conversational style that I raced through this book. Her quotations seemed genuinely plucked from real life. Credit to Russell for keeping the humour when she quoted local experts and academic reports that backed up her book’s subtitle: Denmark definitely does seem to be the world’s happiest country. As Russell’s first year in Denmark came to an end, she summed up what the experience had meant to her:
“Living Danishly has given me a glimpse of a more meaningful way of being. An understanding of how life should be, or at least, how it could be. And I like it.”
 “Any strange typos are because I’m writing at the same time as jogging an eight-week-old over my shoulder while he vomits and defecates simultaneously, occasionally kicking out a few rogue characters on the laptop keyboard.”