Identity issues surface in Vendela Vida’s captivating new read
Dad has just died. Mom split when she was just 14. Her brother is “mentally challenged.” Clarissa Iverton has had a rough life. But things are about to get even more gritty for the thirtysomething woman. Growing up in a dysfunctional household has hardly prepared her for a cross-continental trip that will tear back years and layers of family secrets, as well as invent a few new ones.
Clarissa is a fictional character, whose life and misery we indulge in with great literary pleasure in the book, “Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name.” This second yarn by writer Vendela Vida is so well written that this book can be read in a day. It’s a page-turner at its finest, a novel where readers soak up each of Clarissa’s tragedies, empathizing with and rooting for her to unravel each new mystery. Vida, the author, is clearly a wordsmith with an über knack for storytelling and literary prose, who makes us care about her protagonist, and care about the book. For any author, that’s an extraordinary feat.
On Feb. 22, Bookshop Santa Cruz will welcome Vida for a discussion about and a reading from her new novel. Proving that she possesses a literary prowess, Bookshop reports that members from some of UC Santa Cruz’s creative writing classes will be attending the event. The students, no doubt, will be listening for what she infused into the book to give it that extra bit of literary magic.
And that magic is firmly rooted in her writing. Vida, 35 and a Columbia University graduate, who can boast a master of fine arts degree from the prestigious university, already has a varied past in the writing world. “Northern Lights” is her third book. The first was nonfiction, about the types of initiation rituals that some women go through. Her first novel, “Now You Can Do,” received hefty praise, and this book is already receiving some sturdy support. In addition to having authored three books, Vida is also the co-editor of Believer magazine, a grassroots literary magazine that has a small but loyal fan base. Vida and a few friends from the Columbia days launched the magazine. And on top of that, she also freelances and teaches writing.
For someone with so much writing to do, it’s always illuminating to hear how a scribe like her maintains a writing schedule, especially when working on a book. “I write a lot and then I whittle down,” Vida says. “It took two years to write a full draft and a year of cutting, cutting, cutting. I try to write a word count. When I’m teaching, it’s 500 words a day. When I seriously write, it’s 1,000 words a day. I don’t outline. I like to be surprised. It’s more fun if I have no idea what the character is going to do.”
For example: “I left our apartment at six a.m. passing Pankaj sleeping on the couch, his right foot extended on the coffee table. No one knew I was going anywhere. Disappearing is nothing. I learned this from my mother,” writes Vida in the book.
This paragraph is a pivotal moment for Clarissa, who (I’m sure) surprised Vida with where she was going. The tale, “Northern Lights,” is ultimately about Clarissa’s search for identity. As mentioned above, her father has just passed away. He had been something of a single parent for much of her life. Clarissa’s mother, Olivia, has been missing since Clarissa was 14, prompting father and daughter to eventually hold a funeral for her. Meanwhile, Jeremy, Clarissa’s younger brother, is in a home for others like himself who are mentally handicapped. Upon her father’s death, Clarissa is living in New York with her boyfriend Pankaj. She comes across her birth certificate, and to her horror, her father’s name is not on it. In its place is the name of a priest living in Lapland, a place at the tip of the world, where Sweden, Finland and Norway intersect; a place where the native people (the Sami) of that region, find refuge.
Following in her mother’s path, Clarissa disappears without notifying anyone, and she takes a journey that will ultimately answer some questions and present new ones, as well. She travels to this far away place in the North Pole, where everything is cold and the dark sky creeps in to present “evening” at 3 p.m. There, she confronts the man whose name is on her birth certificate. But is he truly her father? What happens with their confrontation leads her on yet another journey, this one even more entangled.
Vida presents a captivating tale. It’s a story about dysfunction, love, abandonment, choices and families. Interestingly, while the author has been on her book tour, she says she’s met at least 10 people who, like Clarissa, found out that their father was not the man they knew as their father.
“I’m not interested in people going about their daily lives,” Vida says. “I start books with traumatic experiences. I’m more interested in the experiences that catapult people into new states of mind.” And that is exactly what she’s done—both for Clarissa, and for her readers.Vendela Vida will speak about her book at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 22 at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. The book sells for $23.95.