Saturday, July 14, 2007

Naming northern locales

Let the Northern Lights erase your name / Vendela Vida

This one was a review copy from HarperCollins Canada, and it was one I'd been looking forward to reading for some time. The synopsis intrigued me, and in my year of Polar reading, I figure that a story set mainly in Lappland counts as such.

It's the story of a young woman, Clarissa, who discovers at her father's funeral that he was not her biological parent. Her mother had deserted the family years before, and now Clarissa feels bereft and unmoored, stripped of her identity. The name on her birth certificate is that of her mother's first husband, Eero Valkeapaa, whom she knew nothing of previously. He is Finnish, a Sami priest, so off Clarissa goes to Helsinki to find him and hear the truth.

It's quite a trek for her. When she finally arrives at the home of the pastor she believes is her father, he and his wife take her in and when they realize her misapprehension, they set her straight. The story they tell is so horrifying that she refuses to accept it, and eludes him to go further north, among the Sami, where she knows she will find the facts about her mother. She discovers a few kindred spirits who help her in her quest; Anna Kristine, a Sami healer who does not speak English, her grandson Henrik, who takes Clarissa further north to an ice hotel where they stay overnight. It is there, appropriately, that she finds her mother. There is no grand reconciliation scene; her mother is as cold as the wilderness surrounding them. They spend a night together, feeling the other's presence in the next room, but barely speaking. In the morning when Clarissa must leave, she has no answers for any of her questions, and absolutely no connection to her mother. At this point she realizes that they are dead to each other, and this longing for a mother to explain and care for her must also die.

The truth of her paternity breaks upon her on her return to Ana and Heinrik's home, and she must grapple with the questions of the book. In what does our identity lie? What exactly is family? How does one live one's own life without being captive to heredity? Where does one choose to live and how much of one's history should one tell others?

The language of this novel is realistic, austere, and reflects the setting and the character's state of mind. It deals with Clarissa's grief at the death of her dad (she states that he might not have been her biological father, but he was her Dad.) Yet in her grief, she remains active in searching for answers. She is not a typical character by any stretch, and the story she tells is fascinating. She takes an unfamiliar setting, that of Lappland and the Sami people, and brings it down to a personal level. It is not anthroplogy disguised as a novel, however; the setting enhances Clarissa's story rather that overwhelms.

I have to admit I wasn't really sure about this book for the first chapter or so, but it grew on me, and I ended up really wanting things to work out for the heroine. The ending felt a little like an add-on, but it shows us the choices that Clarissa made, the way she negotiated a life for herself in the face of her discoveries. This was an original take on a story of family secrets and the search for identity.


  1. The title of this one caught my eye and your review has made me even more curious. Another one to add to the wishlist. :-) Wonderful review, Melanie! Thank you.

  2. I know someone who read it for her book group and really liked it. But now that I read your review, I'm even more curious. Thank you!


Thanks for stopping by ~ I always enjoy hearing your comments so please feel free to leave some!