Book Reviews

Book Review: The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

“In the US and the UK we’d fought for more money at work, Scandinavians had fought for more time – for family leave, leisure and a decent work-life balance.” 

If there’s one thing that I took away from this book, it’s that if the rest of the world was that little bit more Danish, we’d all be a hell of a lot better off. When UK-based journalist Helen Russell is presented with the opportunity to move to rural Jutland as a result of her husband’s new job, she sets out to discover exactly what makes the Danes such a contented people. The country has charted at the top of the World Happiness Report numerous times, and according to Russell’s witty exploration of everything from the welfare state to work-life balance, it’s easy to see why.

As non-fiction goes, this was a lot of fun to read. Russell’s evident enthusiasm for her subject, and her chatty tone makes it a natural page-turner, even if the author’s chirpiness did grate on me after a while. Rather than refer to her husband and their friends by name, she gives each of them a nickname that serves as a brief description of that person. Her husband for instance, is dubbed ‘Lego Man’ due to his job at Lego, whilst one of her fellow expats is referred to as ‘American Mom’. I found this aspect of the book quite annoying, but not so much that it took away from my enjoyment of it as a whole.

All in all, this is a thorough analysis of everything Danish, in which I learned that the country has the world’s shortest work week, free higher education, a reliable welfare system and citizens more than willing to pay higher taxes, because it means the assurance of all those other things. Russell compiles interviews with experts alongside those of her Danish friends, as well as her own experiences of the Danish way of life. I was particularly taken with the Danish concept of hygge, the act of creating togetherness, hominess and safety that is thought to account for why Danes are so content.

That isn’t to say that the book represents Denmark as some sort of Nordic utopia which, let’s face it, would seem too good to be true. Russell gives a balanced outlook, and recognises that like all countries, Denmark still has a way to go in some areas. Denmark for example is not known for its acceptance of outsiders, and gender inequality is as prevalent here as in other western societies. Rather than skirt around these issues, Russell serves to highlight them, whilst also exploring the improvements that Denmark is attempting to make in these areas. It gave the book some realism which, unsurprisingly, I do prefer when reading non-fiction.

On the whole, it is evident that the good outweighs the bad when it comes to living Danishly. If you’re interested to learn how socialist policies may be successfully implicated, or simply have an enthusiasm for all things Nordic, I highly recommend this book. Reading about Helen Russell’s love of delicious, Danish pastries and her dreamy descriptions of a weekend spent in Copenhagen also spoke to the traveller in me. I think that a trip is in order, if only to experience the Tivoli Gardens Christmas market!

4/5.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

  1. This sounds like such a interesting book! I know there has been a lot of talk about hygge and the whole ‘living danishly’ thing at the moment, so I’d quite like to read up on it, seen as I don’t know a huge amount about Denmark. Great review! 🙂

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