REVIEW: The Year Of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

Helen Russell lives in London and works for Marie Claire magazine, she is married to a businessman and together they live a fast paced city slicker lifestyle that isn’t giving them any real happiness. Constantly exhausted, rarely sleeping, fed up with the ingrained materialism and constant motion of the city the couple decide they need a change. But when her husband (referred to as Lego Man throughout) is offered a job in Denmark, Helen takes some persuading. A place that spends half the year in almost total darkness and eats pickled herring doesn’t feel like a promising place to start a new life. But Denmark is supposed to be the happiest country on the planet and so Helen agrees to go and research what makes the Danish so happy.

I have recently read a fair bit of travel writing and was looking forward to reading about Denmark, a place that I have only visited when I was a baby but where my sister recently spent several months. I really enjoyed Names For The Sea by Sarah Moss (read my review here) and hoped that A Year of Living Danishly would have the same charm.

The book is set out in easily digestible chunks, each chapter covering a month and a theme whether it be good citizenship, raising children or paying taxes. Helen Russell has a lovely narrative voice and you can feel her experience as a journalist and freelance writer throughout. However, a lot of the information within the book is secondhand, whilst Russell’s husband goes to work each day, she stays home to freelance and a lot of the stories come from telephone interviews or her husbands anecdotes from the office. This unfortunately makes the narrative feel quite stilted, as though being told a series of tales by someone who has refashioned the stories to fit their own purposes. I found that Russell relied too heavily on statistics and newspaper articles, making this read like a dry essay rather than a piece of engrossing travel writing. Although interesting it lacked the charm and entertainment value of other travel books I have read. Perhaps as well Russell, or the people she interviewed, are just a little forced in their praise of Danish culture. It felt like a very long advert for Denmark rather an authentic travel book.

I really like Russell’s writing when she was more personal and the writing was more about her personal experiences. Unfortunately there was a greater proportion of stastistica and convoluted anecdotes. Although I enjoyed this book in some parts there are other more enjoyable travel books out there!

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