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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