It wasn’t a book I’d heard of, but when I saw that title I just had to pick it up. When I saw the cover I had to open it. And the concept – one woman’s journey to the northern lights in search of her roots – ensured that the book came home.
It turned out to be book with a certain pedigree – a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime on my side of the Atlantic, and a New York Times Notable Book on the other. And definitely a book worth reading.
Clarissa is twenty-eight and living in New York with her fiance, who she has known since childhood, when her father dies. She has already lost her mother, who disappeared when she was fourteen. And then there is a another loss. Going through her father’s desk Clarissa finds her birth certificate, and discovers a different man is named as her father.
How do you deal with something like that? Clarissa abandons her fiance and travels to Helsinki and then further north into Lapland, in search of her family history and long-held secrets.
Vendela Vida tells her story in sparse, elegant prose, and creates lovely pictures of the places Clarissa travels through with just a few lines. But the real journey is an emotional one, as Clarissa breaks away from her roots to stare into the future alone.
A few things that happened didn’t quite ring true, but I was able to let them go, because they served the story well. And because Clarissa was such a vivid character. Though not always sympathetic. Her grief and sense of loss hit hard, she was clearly driven, but she was also selfish and thoughtless. A believable, fallible human being.
How could she put aside the memory of a man who raised her as his own so easily? How could she abandon without one word a fiance who had done all he could support her, simply because he hadn’t shared a secret that he felt wasn’t hers to tell?
‘And 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.’
I’m not sure if that’s a happy or a sad ending. I’m expected to be happy that Clarissa is looking forward into the future, but I have to feel sad that she feels she has to shed her past to do that. What do you think?
I think that maybe the greatest strength of this book is that it leaves enough space have that kind of thought …