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The Lovers

The Lovers
Vendela Vida
Atlantic Books, 240pp, £14.99

The Lovers is the final book in a trilogy that the author claims is about "violence and rage". There is actually very little of either in Vendela Vida's work. The novels are better seen as being about the attempts of her solitary heroines to reconcile themselves to a world rendered incomprehensible by grief. The violence and rage are out of sight, in the past, visible only in brief and painful flashback.

Where her 2007 novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, followed a woman as she travelled to the Arctic in an attempt to unscramble the muddled story of her parents' lives, The Lovers is a tale of widowhood. In late middle age, Yvonne loses her husband, Peter, to a drugged-up hit-and-run.

The story, told in Vida's taut, spare prose, charts Yvonne's return to the scene of their honeymoon, Datça, in Turkey. She is searching for comforting memories and a place to mourn, away from her busybody neighbours in New England.

Vida's trilogy is also about travel and the American woman abroad. In her first book, And Now You Can Go (2003), a disorientating week in the Philippines helps Ellis, the female narrator, to exorcise the ghosts of her violent past. In Let the Northern Lights, Clarissa finds comfort in the harshness of inhospitable Lapland. In both cases, it is the lack of familiarity that helps to bring about the small epiphanies with which the books end.

The Lovers is no different. I was reminded throughout of the distant, haunted travellers in John Berger's Here Is Where We Meet - this is travel writing about the way journeys act on our interior landscape. Turkey is merely a lightly sketched backdrop.

Those passages that do play on the other-ness of the locale fall flat. The local man from whom Yvonne is renting a house is a clumsy cliché of a misogynist Turkish male. At one point, she hears a burst of conversation from a teashop and manages - despite having no Turkish - to pick out the word Armenia from amid the babble, a clunking reference to the political hot potato.

These and other similar slips that will ring false to a European audience are only a minor distraction from the main theme of the book: Yvonne's efforts to shape past events into a coherent narrative that will help her make sense of the present. Datça has changed beyond recognition since Yvonne and Peter's honeymoon - the hotel they stayed in is derelict, the restaurants filled with "mangy cats trolling for food", the beach filthy. Only a strange friendship with a local boy, Ahmed, offers Yvonne a way of entering into imaginative identification with her surroundings.

The tragedy that forms the core of this short novel is described with poise and precision. Vida is a writer who holds a great deal back, and even though this means that the characters are often less engaging than we might like, it works well for dramatic set pieces. We are at once painfully involved in the scene and given a stark perspective on it.

Once the calamity happens, the novel gains some much-needed momentum, and there are traces of Orhan Pamuk's Snow in the unsettling tale of Yvonne's journey across Turkey to make amends for her half-imagined involvement in the tragedy. She suffers from increasingly Sebaldian episodes of vertigo as she moves into the heart of the country: she gets lost at night in a strange town, suffers a fit of claustrophobia in a Cappadocian cave and ends up blinded by a sandstorm in the surreal final scene of the novel.

Yvonne tells us that, after Peter's death, "she had cocooned herself in a mood, both woolly and ethereal, that separated her from her kids, her students, from the rest of the world". This alienation finds a formal response in the distance of Vida's prose style.

There is something almost sinister in the austerity of the authorial voice in this novel. I was reminded of the opening of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go: you know that something is wrong, that something important is being withheld. We are given very little to go on in Yvonne's increasingly frantic mental fluctuation between past and present, and so we seize on every detail like detectives. Was her marriage with Peter everything their neighbours thought it to be? Has her ex-junkie daughter suffered a relapse? Is the beachside waiter correct in suggesting her feelings for Ahmed are less than pure?

Despite, or maybe because of, the stark and studied prose, The Lovers leaves us feeling vaguely disappointed. Yvonne remains an enigma, skimming over the events of the novel as if perched on a cloud. Antidepressants aren't mentioned, but there is something tranquillised about Yvonne, and about the voice that describes her. It is as if Vida is so intent on perfecting the stark, ambiguous style beloved of creative writing programmes that she forgets to give her heroine a heart. This makes The Lovers a novel in which there is much to admire, rather less to love. l

Alex Preston's novel "This Bleeding City" is published by Faber & Faber (£7.99)