A waterfall of effusive praise spills across the first four pages of my paperback edition of Vendela Vida’s novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Compelling. Economical. Lush. Spare. Unflinching. Precise. Searing. It is a somewhat confusing thesaurus (how can something be both economical and lush? Perhaps this is a failure of my own imagination) and for some reason it left me skeptical. It was as if all the praise roused my inner contrarian and I wasn’t on the book’s side at the beginning. Ultimately, I liked it. I didn’t love it, but there is so much to admire in Vida’s skill as a prosodist that it balanced out the elements of the story that strained my credulity.
SPOILER: Here’s the basic plot outline, minus the climactic finale: Clarissa’s mother abandoned her when Clarissa was 14. Clarissa is now in her late twenties. After her father dies she finds out that he wasn’t her biological father. Then she finds out that her fiance knew about that and didn’t tell her. So she goes to Finnish Lapland to find her biological father (without telling anyone back home). Turns out the person named on her birth certificate as her father isn’t her father either. Turns out her mother was raped and the rapist is Clarissa’s father. Turns out Clarissa, too, was raped (when she was a teenager). Clarissa discovers she is pregnant with her fiance’s child. Incredibly, Clarissa finds her long-lost mother in Lapland. Her mother ignores her and, when forced to acknowledge her, reinforces what she made clear when she left in the first place: she doesn’t want to be a mom. And on and on the story goes, in a tight spiral that reiterates its favorite theme after every revolution: Major Communication Breakdowns Hurt and Define Clarissa.
While I did find the plot a bit too taut (everyone, from the shuttle bus driver in Helsinki to the dudes Clarissa meets in the mini mart have a pointedly meaningful role to play) and melodramatic, and the evocation of Finnish Lapland was patchy, Vida’s prose is mesmerizing. In Clarissa Vida has created a voice that is direct, unwavering, and brazen. I read the book in two great gulps over the period of two days, and part of the reason I couldn’t put it down was because Clarissa felt like that girl in sixth grade with black fingernail polish who talked back to teachers and dared me to go up to boys I didn’t know and ask for their phone numbers. Clarissa must navigate an unthinkable situation. She takes powerful, direct action, action with high-stakes consequences. She strides through the novel with a force that is daunting and delicious.
The other reason I didn’t want to put down the book was the charm of Vida’s similes. Here’s my favorite: Recently, everything around me felt familiar yet amiss, like the first time you ride in the back seat of your own car. It is a simple, perfect simile. It illustrates exactly why writers should continue to employ them. It points straight to something unmistakable. After I read it I was almost embarrassed by the intimacy I suddenly felt with the author, because I know exactly the feeling she references. So did my boyfriend when I read the sentence aloud to him – he smiled and nodded, and so too would any car owner who has found himself in that weird backseat position. The novel is littered with such jewels. Collecting them is the novel’s primary pleasure. In the end, it is a pleasure well worth the read.