Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida. Ecco, 226 pages, $23.95.
The impulse to lump these two novels together is understandable, since Heidi Julavits and Vendela Vida are co-founders of The Believer (a literary journal I’ve written for—just once.) But there’s actually very little evidence to support the notion of a shared Aesthetica Julavida. The Uses of Enchantment, which was published in October, is dense, multilayered and satiric, while Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name is spare, linear and solemn.
Readers first became aware of Heidi Julavits in 1998 when Esquire published “Marry the One Who Gets There First: Outtakes from the Sheidegger-Krupnik Wedding Album,” a short story so vivid that I still remember certain scenes eight years after wolfing it down. But even those of us who’ve been fans of her writing ever since might be surprised by the richness and complexity on display in The Uses of Enchantment.
The new novel opens on the playing fields of a prep school in suburban Boston in 1985, a milieu rendered so precisely that I was slapped back to my own miserable high-school years (Milton, ’86). Mary Veal, a junior at Semmering Academy, goes AWOL during a field-hockey rain delay, gets into a 1975 Mercedes (cue image of the classic bubble-nosed sedan) and disappears without a trace. Six weeks later, she resurfaces, claiming to have no recollection of what happened to her. Psychiatric experts are called in, and soon Mary’s amnesia is seen for what it is—a ruse.
But why would a teenage girl fake her own abduction? One strand of the book is devoted to raising, and then discrediting, possible answers to that question, as Mary’s case becomes a hotly contested power grab between two therapists, each looking to promote their own pet theories at a time when recovered memories of sexual abuse were all the rage. Some of the most hilarious scenes come from the notes of Mary’s analyst as he struggles to pin down his clever, manipulative client. “She made direct eye contact with me—a confusing sign of ego defiance that did not coincide with the earlier abuse theory,” Dr. Hammer writes. “Typically when a patient lashes out at her doctor, she does so without the ability to make concurrent eye contact; to do so would mean taking responsibility for her actions. But Mary suffered no shame; in fact she appeared exultant. You seem to be insulting me, I said.” God knows how many psychoanalytic workbooks Ms. Julavits had to slog through—or how many couches she had to lie on, for that matter—to pull off such a great send-up of the talking cure.
Dr. Hammer publishes a book called Miriam: The Disappearance of a New England Girl, but Mary’s cover is quickly blown and she becomes the pariah of her family, school and town. Fifteen years later, after moving to Oregon, Mary is forced to go back home by the death of her mother, a formidable figure from whom Mary had desperately sought forgiveness. Her crabby, conspiring sisters and her alcoholic aunt make it clear that, in their eyes, Mary will always be the black sheep, but a discovery among her mother’s papers sends her on a search to find out just how well her mother understood her after all. Despite all Mary’s defensive cleverness, her feints and dodges and verbal jousting, her quest for redemption seems real and heartfelt.
IN LET THE NORTHERN LIGHTS ERASE YOUR NAME, Vendela Vida explores a culture far away from Boston’s WASP-y suburbs. The title is taken from a poem written by a Sami, the indigenous people of the Arctic region in Scandinavia where Ms. Vida herself has family and where her protagonist, Clarissa Iverton, goes to track down the secret of her parentage. Clarissa has just discovered that the man who raised her and whom she’d called Dad was not her biological father. What’s more, when Clarissa was 14, her mother, who seemed to love stray cats more than her own children, disappeared from a mall in upstate New York, abandoning her family for good. “In preceding weeks, my mother had been unusually affectionate toward me. I wasn’t sure how long it would last, her warmth, so I followed it like a sunbather at dusk, chasing the sun,” she remembers.
Now a young adult, Clarissa renews her chase all the way to Lapland, where her mother went to research her dissertation before Clarissa was born. The failings of her loved ones, it seems, have hardened Clarissa. “Travel is made for liars. Or liars are made by travel,” she thinks when she arrives in Helsinki and a local asks her why she’s there and she answers that her fiancé just died—a fabrication. “I had given a different explanation to the Belgian deejay sitting next to me on the flight from New York to Brussels. She grated on my nerves, and I wasn’t sure why. She was too eager, too loud, and I decided I could be mean to her. ‘Do you think that’s the Great Lakes?’ she asked, looking over me and out the window. Two hours earlier, we had departed eastward out of Kennedy.”
As Clarissa travels farther and farther north into sunlessness, she begins to uncover clues that her teenage hunch had been true—she had inadvertently driven away her mother. But with these revelations come elisions: At each dramatic moment, more seems to be left unsaid than said.
Harsh, cold landscapes blanketed in snow and Laplanders speaking broken English are a perfect match for Ms. Vida’s economical, though not humorless, prose—more fitting, in fact, than the Manhattan portrayed in her first novel, And Now You Can Go (2004).
Heidi Julavits is a show-stopping maximalist compared with Vendela Vida, whose elegant restraint is sometimes a little too unflinching. If these books are any indication, the artistic reservoir beneath The Believer runs both deep and wide.
Ruth Davis Konigsberg writes for Elle and is at work on her first book.