Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida

June 9, 2008

Clarissa thought she knew who she was, she thought she’d come to terms with her mother’s abandonment years ago and she thought she was close to her father. But following his death, she finds her birth certificate with another man named as her father. Then it turns out her fiancé, whom she’s known since childhood, knew about this all along, prompting Clarissa to flee to Lapland in search of the Sami priest she believes is her real father. Her quest takes her through the artic landscape where she meets people who once knew her mother, including the Sami priest. Still no closer to the truth, she eventually meets her mother in the far north wilderness, though this is not a happy reunion. The woman who named her Clarissa, after Samuel Richardson’s heroine “with the hope that you’d rewrite history” is intent on evading questions about her own past. I won’t spoil the ending but suffice to say, Clarissa is just as deft as her mother in refusing to be a victim of her history. The story unfolds at quite a pace, full of innovative descriptions, with a very contemporary voice.

I’ve not read Richardson’s Clarissa (the longest novel in English!) but what I’ve gleaned from plot summaries reminds me of Henry James’s The Portrait of Lady – Isabel Archer is determined to choose her a life compatible with her own ideals, resisting traditional expectations. The unforeseen consequences of Isabel’s choice, her inability to find a way out, bound by her very own ideals, is so tragic. It’s one of those books I often return to, hoping to trace where she went wrong, secretly wishing it would turn out differently! Thankfully Vida’s Let the Northern Lights has a far more optimistic ending.

On the last page Vida acknowledges Galen Strawson’s essay “Against Narrative” as an inspiration for this novel – she was “curious about the kind of person who would see their past as unconnected to their present.” It’s a thought provoking essay questioning the model of narrativity for the way the mind works – pointing out that some people favour form over narrative, seeing greater significance in episodes and abstract ideas rather than in cause and effect narrative.
Let the Northern Lights certainly explores the idea of self-narrative – though I did wonder if didn’t owe as much to an earlier interview with Strawson (published in the Believer) which explores his thoughts about free will.

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4 Responses to “Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida”

  1. Ariel said

    This another one I’ve been wanting to read. It sounds fascinating – like it’s very much a novel of ideas.

    “curious about the kind of person who would see their past as unconnected to their present.”

    Does that refer to the mother who abandons the narrator when she’s a child?

  2. Yes it’s one of those novels that’s deceptively easy to read, but by the end there are lots of ideas to explore.

    That quote does refer to the mother – though Clarissa in her identity quest and the uncovering of uncomfortable truths, has to choose how much to identify with her past as well. (without giving away the ending) Clarissa chooses to not be a victim to her past but doesn’t go as far as her mother did – totally splitting off from that past. This interview with Vida explains it better!
    http://www.smallspiralnotebook.com/interviews/2007/04/felicia_c_sullivan_interviews_2.shtml

  3. verbivore said

    I’ve had this book on my TBR list for quite some time. You write about it beautifully. For some reason I didn’t have a good grasp on what the novel was actually about so you’ve cleared that up and made me eager to get my hands on a copy of this – sounds fascinating.

  4. Verbivore – glad I could clear up what it’s about, it is quite fascinating – so I look forward to hearing what you think of it!

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