A hole in my heart

<strong>Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name</strong>

Vendela Vida <em>Atlantic Books, 230pp, £

Vendela Vida’s first book, Girls on the Verge, was a non-fiction study of young American women. Here, too, at the heart of her second novel, is a woman on the verge:

28-year-old Clarissa Iverton, pushed to the edge by the death of her father. Leaving her partner, she flees to Lapland and chips away at frozen memories there.

Clarissa’s mother vanished when she was 14, and these two losses are the points between which the narrative skilfully oscillates. Mr Iverton bought a washing machine when his wife left, hoping that it would “make her absence less obvious”. But this is a novel in which absences exert the greatest presence. Her parents’ identity is etched everywhere, and Clarissa cannot free herself of being “Olivia’s daughter” until she understands the extent to which it defines her personality.

Clarissa’s grief renders everyday objects almost totemic: her mother’s earrings, her father’s shampoo. Yet it is the troubled inner landscape of her characters that Vida most compellingly throws into relief. “I wasn’t sure how long it would last, her warmth, so I followed it,” Clarissa recalls as, against the frozen wasteland, the narrative becomes, in taut, unsentimental prose, a quest for human affection.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom