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Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Nameby Vendela Vida
Let me say first that I read this book because of the title. Much like buying a book for its cover, I was drawn in by the possibility that this poetic directive would yield a satisfying story. I was not disappointed; there's a lot to appreciate here. Vida's style is spare, but graceful and evocative, almost cinematic. The narrator is a wry observer of herself who often does exactly what she ought not do. The sometimes surreal depictions of Lapland lend the story the feel of a fairy tale — a grim, dark, snowy fairy tale. It's a beautiful, haunting story.
Vendela Vida's writing surprised me. I hadn't read anything by her before, and though her earlier books have garnered blurbs from writers I admire, being married to Dave Eggers is not a plus in my opinion. That said, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name was a moving story. After her dad's sudden death, twenty-eight-year-old Clarissa is faced with the shocking news that he wasn't really her biological father. That topped with the fact that she was abadoned by her mother at the age of fourteen, sets her off on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Lapland in search of herself and her roots. Of course, things don't unfold as she expects, and the impractical trip turns occasionally ridiculous. Though important insights and information fall into Clarissa's lap rather easily, I still enjoyed Vida's writing and her character's determination to find out where she came from and why her mother left, and the ending was a fitting way to wrap up the story without seeming trite.
Synopses & Reviews
On the day of her father's funeral, twenty-eight-year-old Clarissa Iverton discovers that he wasn't her biological father after all. Her mother disappeared fourteen years earlier, and now Clarissa is alone and adrift. The one person she feels she can trust, her fiancé, Pankaj, has just revealed a terrible and life-changing secret to her. In the cycle of a day, all the truths in Clarissa's world become myths and rumors, and she is catapulted out of the life she knew.
She finds her birth certificate, which leads her from New York to Helsinki, and then north of the Arctic Circle, to mystical Lapland, where she believes she'll meet her real father. There, under the northern lights of a sunless winter, Clarissa comes to know the Sami, the indigenous population, and seeks out a local priest, the one man who may hold the key to her origins. Along her travels she meets an elderly Sami healer named Anna Kristine, who has her own secrets, and a handsome young reindeer herder named Henrik, who accompanies Clarissa to a hotel made of ice. There she is confronted with the truth about her mother's past and finally must make a decision about how — and where — to live the rest of her life.
Joan Didion said of Vendela Vida's last book: "And Now You Can Go is so fast, so mesmerizing to read, and so accomplished that it's hard to think of it as a first novel, which it is. Vendela Vida has promise to spare." With Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, Vida more than lives up to that promise as she gives us a remarkable protagonist who is both fierce and funny, and an unforgettable literary thriller that questions whether we can ever truly know where we've come from — and if it is possible to escape our pasts.
"Believer co-editor Vida again explores violence, its aftermath and the curative powers of travel in her bleak second novel. (Her debut, 2003's And Now You Can Go, sent a young woman to the Philippines after a traumatic event.) But this time readers are nearly a hundred pages in before the long-ago physical violence is revealed. Clarissa, home after her father's funeral, finds herself deeply alone. Her developmentally disabled brother has never spoken, and her mother walked out on them 14 years before. Digging through family papers, she finds her birth certificate, which lists a stranger as her father. The hunt for him and the resumption of a search for her mother lead Clarissa to far northern Europe, where the days are short, the reindeer are plentiful and her mother had once felt 'connected.' Clarissa's travels in her mother's steps seeking that connection, stumbling, finding it and finally severing it are bleak. Vida's fan base will welcome this novel, and the twin questions of what Clarissa's amateur sleuthing will turn up and how each discovery will affect her might draw a few new readers through this slim, austere work." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Believer co-editor Vida again explores violence, its aftermath and the curative powers of travel in her bleak second novel. (Her debut, 2003's And Now You Can Go, sent a young woman to the Philippines after a traumatic event.) But this time readers are nearly a hundred pages in before the long-ago physical violence is revealed. Clarissa, home after her father's funeral, finds herself deeply alone. Her developmentally disabled brother has never spoken, and her mother walked out on them 14 years before. Digging through family papers, she finds her birth certificate, which lists a stranger as her father. The hunt for him — and the resumption of a search for her mother — lead Clarissa to far northern Europe, where the days are short, the reindeer are plentiful and her mother had once felt 'connected.' Clarissa's travels in her mother's steps — seeking that connection, stumbling, finding it and finally severing it — are bleak. Vida's fan base will welcome this novel, and the twin questions of what Clarissa's amateur sleuthing will turn up and how each discovery will affect her might draw a few new readers through this slim, austere work." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Vendela Vida has borrowed the title of her second novel from a poem by Marry Somby, a member of one of Europe's largest indigenous groups, the Sami, who settled in Lapland more than 4,000 years ago. Populating the northern regions of the Scandinavian peninsula from Norway to Russia, the Sami speak 10 languages that include about 400 words for reindeer (their traditional livelihood) and one word that... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) has found its way into English: 'tundra.' Vida's novel has adopted not just the remarkable title and milieu of Somby's poem but also its emotional urgency. Part prayer, part curse, her book is a tightly restrained expression of anger and yearning, a strangled cri de coeur. Across its surface runs a frozen stream of bleak comedy, while tragedy churns underneath. In this case, Vida has aptly located her tragedy of parental abandonment in the most remote, unforgiving landscapes of Finland and Norway. Clarissa Iverton, the novel's American narrator, has weathered a difficult childhood with reasonable grace. She's an ungrudging guardian of her younger brother Jeremy, who was born with a severe case of Down syndrome. More difficult but still manageable has been the absence of her mother, who vanished from the mall near their house in Rhinebeck, N.Y., while Christmas shopping, leaving only this message for her 14-year-old daughter at the bakery where they were to meet: 'She said to tell you she got tired of waiting.' Now 28, Clarissa is engaged to her childhood friend Pankaj, a doctoral student in philosophy, and edits film subtitles in Manhattan for a living. After her father dies of a sudden heart attack, she sifts through his papers and discovers that her real father is not the man who raised her but a complete stranger, a Sami priest living in Lapland. Worse than this revelation is the news that Pankaj, whose mother was Clarissa's mother's best friend, has known the secret for 15 years. Stunned by these betrayals, Clarissa does what the women in her family do best. 'No one knew I was going anywhere. Disappearing is nothing. I learned this from my mother.' When Clarissa travels to the Arctic Circle to confront her father, any reader hoping for a fact-stuffed travelogue is bound to be disappointed. As in Vida's first novel, 'And Now You Can Go' (2003), in which a traumatized young woman escapes to the Philippines to help American doctors on a mercy mission, the new book stays faithful to its distraught narrator's point of view, providing only eccentric glimpses of its exotic locale. Instead of straightforward description, we're offered disconnected sensual details. During a forlorn sexual misadventure with a shuttle-bus driver in Helsinki, Clarissa notes that the man's fingers 'tasted like coins.' Much later, sick with fever in the remote Norwegian town of Kautokeino, Clarissa drinks reindeer blood, offered by a healer, that 'tastes like electricity.' A reindeer herder who befriends her 'smelled like a hamster I used to own,' and her traveling clothes have 'the plane smell of Band-Aids.' Hitching a ride from Kautokeino to Karasjok, where Clarissa hopes the newly built Sami parliament might divulge clues about her parents' history, she sees a white plastic chair hanging from a tree, about which she and the couple who picked her up 'laughed together for longer than we needed to.' Clarissa's mirth in this unfunny moment comes from desperation, but she's not immune to more subtly amusing encounters with reticent Laplanders. During her first meeting in Finland with Eero, the Sami priest whose name appears on her birth certificate, he shows off his neighborhood, in which every house but one displays a single strand of white Christmas lights. 'Everyone is VERY upset with that house,' Eero tells her, pointing to the one house with blue lights around its front door. 'Those people really took it too far.' These offbeat impressions are merely distractions from an increasingly painful journey. It turns out that Eero is not Clarissa's biological father and that the parent she finally tracks down in Lapland is her mother, who is working as a guide for adventure tours at an ice hotel in Norway. The reunion between Clarissa and her mother is far from heartwarming. Here, the book's parallels between frigid northern landmarks and chilly human behavior begin to seem too tidy. We're asked to believe that this mother, whom Clarissa has repeatedly described as charismatic, gives off brilliance but no warmth, like the hotel made of ice or the Northern Lights, which the Sami believe are their ancestors. Yet we never see any evidence of that charisma: When Clarissa confronts her mother, she is unrelentingly ugly and cruel. In the end, a novel whose theme is emotional withholding becomes a perpetrator of its own crime, making the reader yearn, like an unloved daughter, for more." Reviewed by Donna Rifkind, who reviews fiction frequently for The Washington Post, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] dark whimsy suffuses the whole book and accounts for much of its peculiarly biting charm. You've seen it before, in movies like Little Miss Sunshine or The Royal Tenenbaums and in books like — well, maybe there aren't any other books that walk this very fine line between high-camp comedy and the lyrical seriousness that Vida's title portends." New York Times
"Vida gives the icy landscape an eerie, forbidding beauty, and her writing has moments of great emotional acuity." New Yorker
"Novels about unhappy young people who seek to escape their dysfunctional families and find a new identity are almost a genre to themselves, but the vivid scenes of Lapland, with its reindeer, northern lights, and Ice Hotel, give this novel a unique twist." Library Journal
"A luminescent and evocative tale of grief, free of the standard cliches." Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Vendela Vida graduated from Middlebury College and received her MFA at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Jane, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.
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