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Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida

Connie Ogle [The Miami Herald]

A young woman discovers shocking truths about her missing mother -- and herself -- in Vendela Vida's second novel.

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

Publisher: Ecco
Length: 240
Formats: Hardcover
Price: $23.95
Author: Vendela Vida
US publication date: 2007-01

"The year my mother disappeared, I began following missing persons cases," confides Clarissa Iverton, the unhappy translator who narrates this bleak, chilly but stirring novel. "It had surprised me that when families found the bodies of their loved ones, they told news reporters they finally felt a sense of closure, of relief."

Who can blame Clarissa for developing such a sad, morbid hobby after that bewildering day at the Poughkeepsie mall when she was 14? She and her mother split up while shopping for Christmas presents, and Clarissa, waylaid by elaborate gift wrapping, arrives at the designated meeting spot 15 minutes late. Her mother isn't there.

"She said to tell you she got tired of waiting," the woman behind the counter says.

Her mother never resurfaces, and as Clarissa and her family carry on, she begins to assess her enormous loss more and more coldly, as though freezing from the inside out is the only way to survive. "If someone gave me a pile of bones and said they were my mother's, I decided I would cry for a day and move on." On the fourth anniversary of the disappearance, Clarissa and her father hold a funeral service. "We were the only ones invited, the only attendees. We had no proof she was dead, but we needed to feel that she was."

Secret, lies, revelations and the shimmering difficulties of just getting on with life permeate Vendela Vida's second novel, much as they did her debut And Now You Can Go, in which a young woman struggles to overcome the unsettling echoes of an encounter with a disturbed armed attacker.

Like that novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name is deceptively slim and easy to read, its intricacy tucked into small phrases ("Try to recognize me now") and indelible images ("Outside my window, dusk was already settling in like a bruise"). Even Clarissa's job is telling. She smoothes clumsy film subtitles into recognizable English, but the work requires neither passion nor commitment: "I don't have to speak the original language."

Co-editor of The Believer magazine and a founding member of the nonprofit writing lab 826 Valencia, Vida is a subtle, skilled writer, and much of what happens in her spare but emotionally vivid novels occurs just beyond the reader's view. She disguises a world of heartache in brief, matter-of-fact sketches: "No one knew I was going anywhere. Disappearing is nothing. I learned this from my mother." This book is much darker than her first, but it is as alive and fascinating as the brilliant atmospheric phenomenon of its title.

As the story opens, the adult Clarissa has just arrived in Helsinki, reeling from the double shock of her father's death and the discovery that his name is not listed on her birth certificate. Instead, odd, unfamiliar vowels are printed where his name should be. Not Richard, but -- and try to get your American mouth around this -- Eero Valkeapaa. "Eero Valkeapaa." This name prompts Clarissa to travel to Lapland, where her mother once lived. She aims to find this Eero Valkeapaa, whoever he may be, and wrap her life around this true father with whom surely she will have a real connection.

But such journeys have a way of revealing the unexpected, and, following a familiar literary tradition, Clarissa does not encounter the truths she anticipates. She rides the Santa Claus Express to the top of the world. She visits remote and frozen places, including a hotel made of ice. She learns about the Sami, indigenous reindeer herders (the men, that is; most young women flee to the university in Oslo).

But most remarkably, through her adventures Clarissa sheds the tethering connections of her life -- her adoptive father; her silent, developmentally handicapped brother; her worried fiance -- and slowly comes to understand, if not forgive, her mother's choices. We are all our mothers' daughters, Vida seems to tell us, and sometimes a new world is necessary in order to survive old wounds, no matter what anguish you leave behind.

"When I would hear people say that you can't start over, that you cannot escape the past, I would think "You can. You must," Clarissa says. Sometimes reality chills you to the bone -- to the heart -- but sometimes, it warms you enough to start again.

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