At five p.m. on December 16, my mother called me into her study. I waited until she said my name twice, so I didn’t appear too eager.
There is something quietly heartbreaking in these words, spoken by the narrator of Vendela Vida’s lovely second novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Some years before the opening action of the novel, Clarissa’s mother disappeared, and a number of the brief, impressionistic chapters are devoted to the mercurial woman whose absence has left its melancholic mark on Clarissa. In one scene, Clarissa’s mother asks her young daughter how she looks, and Clarissa’s one-word reply is “Beautiful.”
It was true, but I regretted saying it. I was lovesick.
The lovesickness of the abandoned child permeates this book. Reading this passage I thought of my young son, who stood before me at two a.m. a few nights ago while I was changing his diaper. In his half-awake, wobbly state, hair askew and eyes watery with sleep, he pointed at me and said in a tone that was utterly guileless, “I love her.” Books abound about the love of parent for child. In many ways, this is a book about the love of a child for a parent.
Despite the fact that the book begins with a death–that of Clarissa’s father–and a jarring revelation about the narrator’s own identity, the writing is lively and often very funny. I found myself laughing out loud at one point when the concierge at Clarissa’s hotel in Helsinki ducks into a Diesel store and announces, upon his exit, that he has “picked something up.”
I tried to think what it could be–a hat? a vest? a better-looking sweater?
“They give out free condoms there.” He opened his hand like a magician at the end of a trick, displaying his surprise.
In addition to providing a provocative look at identity and its meaning, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name captures the feeling of travel to a strange place with its surprising familiarities. At one point Clarissa remarks, “Travel is made for liars. Or liars are made by travel.” At which point I tried to remember lies I’d told while abroad, and realized it was startlingly easy to come up with examples.
The Exercise: Write about a lie you told while traveling.