Saturday, January 10, 2009

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida

Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name is a tense examination of identity and family set in the remote upper reaches of Scandinavia, a place called Lapland. She sets the pace of a thriller, almost demanding you read the book straight through, but manages to provoke some interesting thoughts as well.

Dislocation and disorientation are the primary themes as narrator Clarissa struggles with a series of emotional jolts—her father dies and in going through his things she finds out he wasn’t her real father, discovers her fiancé and longtime time friend knew about her parentage the whole time, and then she takes off to Helsinki without a word to anyone in the hopes of meeting her real father, a Sami priest in Lapland. Her mother abandoned the family fourteen years before and has practically disappeared from the face of the earth.

As she embarks on her quest, Clarissa is a severely distraught and stumbles from encounter to encounter on the verge of breaking down. Her mother studied the people of Lapland before meeting the man she thought was her father, so she tracks down the man on her birth certificate. Of course, such journeys have a way of revealing the unexpected, and Clarissa does not find the answers that she anticipates.

I hesitate to give any more of the story, though there are some interesting parallels between Clarissa and her mother, which resonated with me as I often try and discover how my parent’s behavior when I was a child affects my behavior now as an adult. Yet Clarissa fails to ask these questions, and as Vida informs us at the novel’s end of the characters fates in the future, one can’t help but think that she really didn’t learn all that much from her trip at all. In this respect, I feel that Vida fails a bit, but overall this is a beautifully written novel.

While one might suspect the story to be a travelogue, informing the reader about the sights and culture of the Sami people, Vida resists this urge. These native Scandinavians are analogous to American Indians. Her acute descriptions keep the novel focused and allow for a somewhat mystical feel to the whole narrative. Only occasionally does she give any description beyond a snowsuit, but when she does a few words can make all the difference: ‘The sun never rose, but at ten thirty, the sky looked like a dark blue parachute concealing a flame.’

And as I stated at the start, perhaps the greatest accomplishment here is that such a slim volume could contain the fast pace and still raise so many intriguing questions. I tend to resist the McSweeney’s crowd these days (Vida is married to Dave Eggers), but I am glad that I listened to the recommendation by Jenny Davidson and read this novel.

No comments: