Moments ago, lying in bed trying at long last to finally get rid of this stupid cold that's been plaguing me for one whole week now, I finished Vendela Vida's Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. I started this morning. Less than two hours ago, truly. The book pulls you along like a long drive made shorter by great conversation, good scenery and brilliant company. It kind of makes time disappear.
Upon the death of her dad, Richard, Clarissa, 28 years old and engaged to a lovely philosophy professor named Pankaj, discovers that he's not really her father. When her mother abandoned the family fourteen years ago, she left no clues to Clarissa's true identity past a never-ending dissertation on the Sami and a birth certificate. Clarissa feels betrayed and abandoned by almost everyone in her life who knew that Richard was not her biological parent, and leaves behind her entire existence one night to travel to Lapland, where she hopes to find her real father, and maybe some clues about why her mother left all those years ago.
To give any more away would spoil the novel, as its prose is so tight, there's not a wasted word, really, that almost all of the 226 pages carry important bits of story. Vida's writing is crisp, clean, and echoes the scenery in a way, it too is sparse, complex with history, and utilitarian. So much of the story in the novel comes as a surprise, from beginning to end, and it goes in places that you, as a reader, simply don't expect. The title, taken from a Sami poet named Marry Ailoniedia Somby, becomes so meaningful once you come to the end of the book, and it's impossible not to feel a great deal of pain alongside Clarissa, as she takes this incredible journey towards finding out her true identity.
And it's not what you'd expect.
I also wish that I could bend my rules about my Around the World in 52 Books challenge to maybe count this book as Lapland, if only because Vida does an excellent job of exploring the culture of the Sami without turning her novel into a lesson in anthropology. In that way, it's like Mister Pip, and I feel richer for having read the book. I am also ashamed at how little I know about the non-Irish and non-British origins of my family. I recognized the glögg that Clarissa drinks in Helsinki only because my aunt once told me her grandmother always made it at Christmas. We've now lost all those traditions. But this novel almost makes me want to take a trip to Sweden right now and discover all the things about our family that have been lost over the many years since immigration.
Regardless, the book remains steadfast with Clarissa's view, and that's its strength, how she understands and sees the world, and how she sees herself, as one part of her life definitively ends and another begins at a moment she would never see coming. How nothing in life turns out how you would expect on the day before your father dies. How everything changes afterwards.
PHOTO IN CONTEXT: Boring, yes, but the book sitting on my desk surrounded by all the various drafts of my longish story that I'm working through at the moment.
EDITED TO ADD: I had totally forgotten about this BookTV interview with Vendela Vida about the book. Isn't she lovely and well spoken?