Friday, 30 September 2011

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

After the death of Clarissa's father she finds her birth certificate in his desk, and reads it for the first time. Realising her father wasn't the man she thought he was, and as a byblow finding out her fiance hasn’t been entirely honest either, she travels to northern Finland, and then other parts of Lapland, in one hundred and thirty short, fraught and careful chapters.

In reminiscence we learn about her emotionally distant mother, who disappeared without a word fourteen years before, and see a child desperate for her mother's love. Grown up, she's behaving the way her mother did: leaving her devoted fiance Pankaj without a word.

Halfway in further discoveries and memories make the novel almost unbearably sad, and though the conclusion is heartbreaking, Clarissa sees it as a kind of success – making it sadder still.

Although this novel from the editor of The Believer takes us to an ice palace of sorts, it isn’t a fantasy. Or rather, it’s not part of the fantasy genre: it’s about the fantasy of leaving everything behind, escaping oneself, all responsibilities and obligations, and beginning anew.

Vida explains in her afterword that she was “curious about the kind of person who would see their past as unconnected to their present”, and I read the novel as an attempt to imagine the psychology of someone who could make such a break successfully, if that’s the right word, although the first person narrator’s quiet pleasure in the quirks of those she meets is perhaps a little at odds with her behaviour.

It pains me to agree with the Daily Telegraph, but, as they are quoted as saying on the cover, this is indeed “beautifully written”, and though it’s a book about someone who is recently bereaved and profoundly unhappy, it’s full of gentle humour, particularly in Clarissa’s interactions with the English-speaking people of northern Europe.

This was a book I loved reading, not least because, in its portrayal of a daughter missing her parents, it reminded me of something it’s so easy to forget in the course of the daily routine: how lucky I am to have two daughters of my own – and, you know what, how lucky they are to have me…

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida. Atlantic Books, ebook, 2917ll.

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