Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida--a review
Vendela Vida’s second novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, tells the story of Clarissa, a young woman who seems to be in a stale relationship and a dead-end job, whose world is blown apart when her father dies. Years ago, when Clarissa was fourteen, her mother abandoned Clarissa, Clarissa’s mentally retarded younger brother, and their father, disappearing without a trace. After her father’s death, Clarissa learns some long-buried family secrets, and feels that she needs to go on a trek to Lapland, in the far north of Scandinavia, where her mother had been married before, to a Sami priest. There Clarissa digs for the traces of her own history among the indigenous Sami people, who herd reindeer in the land of the northern lights.
I found Vida’s prose spare and accessible; she’s a writer who tells her tale without any extra words. Once I got into the rhythm of the writing, I enjoyed it. And I enjoyed the parts about the Sami culture—it’s a part of the world and a people I know little about. The novel whetted my appetite for more on that subject.
The book has been criticized for unlikable characters, but I don’t have a problem with that (this time!), because though I didn’t always relate to the main character’s choices, the writer still made her sympathetic to me. And that’s what I mean when I go on about having trouble with unlikable characters—I don’t really mind if a character does things that I wouldn’t do, or even that I think are reprehensible--if the writer somehow develops something worthy of sympathy in the person, I can get on board. So that way I can read about a murderer and still be okay with that character.
While I didn’t find a deep emotional connection with main character Clarissa, I did feel for her. (slight spoiler alert—if you haven’t read the book you may not want to read on) The part of the book that stuck with me was Clarissa’s encounter with the mother who had abandoned her years before. The mother just made me so angry, and I have to give the book credit for having that kind of power. That said, I didn’t find the mother character believable. I know she was a rape victim, which I suppose accounts for her lack of connection with her daughter, but I still found her detachment extraordinary. She just didn’t feel psychologically believable.
On the surface, this is a story of emotional betrayal and abandonment, but I found it more interesting after reading the question and answer session with the author at the back of the book. Vida said she wanted to create a story about someone who would want to make a complete break with her past. And then it all fell into place for me—I got it, and even though there were certain aspects of the story that then read as an exercise to me, rather than more organic, I saw how the pieces of the story made sense. I read it as an answer to the question “what makes identity?”, and it was interesting to ponder. Did Clarissa’s mother, who was never emotionally available and then actively abandoned her, shape her into who she was? Or was it more the man who raised her, whom she was not biologically connected to? Ultimately Clarissa makes that decision herself, choosing a completely new path for herself, making a satisfying end for the reader, too.