Vendela Vida’s sweeping new novel is a multilayered page-turner about a young woman who suddenly finds she is not who she thinks she is and nothing is as it seems. The author’s talent as a storyteller shines through in unexpected ways as her remarkable protagonist confronts the demons of her past and future.
Vida’s haunting and unadorned prose frees the reader from the standard cliché of a woman lost in her own life. The plot, set mostly above the Arctic Circle in northern Scandinavia, twists and curls effortlessly around themes of loneliness and despair and finally centers on what it means to break a familial pattern not unlike a cycle of addiction or abuse and become free again.
After her father’s sudden death, Clarissa learns that the man who raised and loved her was not, in fact, her biological kin. Turning to her mother for answers is not possible, as she disappeared from a shopping mall when Clarissa was 14. Confused and alone, the only clue Clarissa has about her identity is the name of a priest who lives above the Arctic Circle.
Clarissa travels to Lapland, home to the indigenous Sami people. She hopes to find answers among them, and in the surrounding bleak landscape — who was her father? What caused her mother to flee from here, and is it possible that she’s returned? And ultimately, where does she belong?
Arriving on the priest’s doorstep, Clarissa lets herself imagine growing up in his warm home; trudging to school in the cold, eating reindeer meat and Wasa crackers, and gathering with the family around the fire. Instead, what the priest reveals about her personal history is “a nasty fairy tale with no moral.”
The journeys of the primary characters, if they were to be peeled away from the landscape, would be a less special experience for the reader. The story’s setting adds dimension and complexity, and this additional layer is what pushes it beyond an ordinary tale of broken families and lost identities.
The natural wonders of the far north, like the neverending darkness, the never ending light, and the Arctic cold, become allegories for the emotions and experiences of the characters. The Northern Lights are believed to be the ancestors of the Sami people, protecting and guiding them through their lives. Clarissa sits alone on a train and watches the sky brighten and pulse “as though hiding a beating heart.”
It’s difficult to put this book down because Vida, author of Girls on the Verge and And Now You Can Go, so expertly allows the glimmers of lightness and hope to shine through Clarissa’s undoing and despair. Together with artful plot twists, Vida has written another unforgettable work of fiction.
By AUSTIN WALTERS, Contributing Writer
Book: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida, Ecco/HarperCollins 2007, Hardcover, 226 pages, $23.95