Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name is the story of Clarissa Iverson - a twenty-nine year old who discovers, upon her father’s death, that everything she thought was true about her family is not. The novel is narrated by Clarissa who is living with her fiance Pankaj when her father unexpectedly dies. The reader learns that Clarissa’s mother had abandoned her family, leaving her daughter stranded in a mall, 15 years earlier.
The funeral was the first day I envied my brother’s ignorance. Since birth, Jeremy has never spoken, so it was unclear whether he understood Dad had died. My family would never acknowledge that Jeremy was retarded; my mother used to say he was slow. She vanished when I was fourteen, Jeremy six. In the hollow months that followed her disappearance, I convinced myself our family was being punished for our silent shame about Jeremy. -From Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name, page 5-
Clarissa, echoing her mother’s abandonment, leaves Pankaj without telling him where she is going and flees to Lapland to locate her “real” father. Her journey introduces her to the mystical Samis, the indigenous people who inhabit the Nordic countries of Norway, Sweden, and Finland as well as the far northern parts of Russia. As the story progresses, Clarissa begins to uncover not only her mother’s darkest secrets, but her own identity.
Vendela Vida has written a novel about betrayal, family secrets, shame and its aftermath, and the search for identity. Her prose is spare and injected with a sardonic humor which allows Vida to ironically explore the most devastating of human emotions. The character of Clarissa is raw and honest - and despite her flaws and her final decision (which was not completely unexpected), I liked her. Clarissa’s voice is one to which anyone who has experienced loss can relate. She carries the reader through her story with an urgency that is haunting in its appeal.
Vida has created an evocative novel steeped in history and culture. She examines the tough subjects with an honesty which borders on ‘matter-of-fact’ but works for this story. There are not easy answers in this novel which would make it an excellent book to discuss with a reading group. I read Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name quickly - in the span of one day- because I simply had to know where it would take me. Clarissa is a hard character to forget…I expect I will be thinking of her for quite some time.