Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida
The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger

10/03/07, The Times

How clichéd is it to have a novel turn around a twenty-nine year-old woman discovering, almost immediately after her father’s funeral, that the recently deceased man is not her biological parent and then embarking on a journey to discover her real one? The answer must be a loud, resounding and emphatic ‘Not in the slightest’ if the book in question is Vendela Vida’s second novel, the slightly feyly-titled Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name.
     Clarissa Iverton – named after Richardson’s heroine – stealthily leaves her boyfriend, Pankaj, behind in their shared apartment in Brooklyn and travels to Lapland, above the Arctic Circle to the northernmost edge of Europe, to hunt down her origins. This disappearing act seems to be a family trait: Clarissa’s mother left her husband and two children and vanished without a trace nearly sixteen years ago. You wouldn’t be wrong to guess that Clarissa’s quest holds more surprises than just a simple answer to the question of her father’s identity but nothing prepares you for the nature of those surprises – and there are several of those – or for the unique torque they apply to the narrative, spinning it in directions you never assumed it could take.
But over and above the ‘what’ there is also the question of ‘how’ and Vida’s prose has the purity of the Lapland winter it describes. This is not to say she writes the blanched prose of, say, a Coetzee, or to say that her clean, uncluttered writing lacks warmth and feeling, for behind the measured beauty of her crystalline sentences vast emotional currents move and glide. It is very far from the minimalism practised by Carver; such writing possesses the clarity of church bells or of winter light. And she has Ali Smith’s ability of investing an austere sentence of ostensible observation of the outside world, a plain recording of physical details, with an entire microclimate of inner weather.
     In the end, Clarissa repeats a version of her mother’s history, the irony being that both women, in their different ways, are trying to escape from the inexorable talons of the past. ‘And when I hear people say that you can’t start over, that you cannot escape the past, I would think You can. You must’, Clarissa muses. But the question that echoes long after you have closed the book is about the eventual success of such a flight.
     The past, and its various readings, misreadings and rewritings, is very much at the centre of Nell Freudenberger’s searingly intelligent first novel, The Dissident. Freudenberger generated an exorbitant amount of hype with her debut collection, Lucky Girls. If that book justified it, then this novel can only consolidate it, for there is an incandescent talent at work here, a sensibility that can devise a rich, thick plot, people it with not just believable but also developing characters, and animate the whole thing with an intellectual and moral energy that never shies off from asking the big questions.
     It tells not one but two stories and their enmeshment: the story of wealthy Cece Travers and her family in Beverly Hills and the story of a dissident young Chinese artist, Yuan Zhao, who comes to stay at their beautiful home on a year’s fellowship to UCLA. While the story of the Traverses is told in the third-person, Freudenberger gives her dissident a first-person narrative, thus playing off the different subjectivities involved against each other. A shrewd strategy this, because from the very beginning we are left in no doubt that all is not what it seems with the dissident: there is a lot of evasion and secrecy afoot in his narrative that naturally impinge on the Los Angeles strand of the story, too. As the truth about his past in the revolutionary and subversive artists’ colony of Beijing’s ‘East Village’ at a precarious moment in Chinese history – just before and after Tiananmen – slowly emerges, the very past for which he has been offered his position in an American university, the lives of everyone look set to be changed irrevocably.
     To discover a contemporary young writer not disappearing down the vortex of postmodern doodling or navel-gazing and instead training her formidable acuity on big themes – authenticity and copying, faking and originality, truth and lies, posterity and the present – is news indeed. Her novel gradually unfurls into that rare thing, a work of poetics itself, a meditation on the very nature of representation in art. The fact that she does it with such wit and compassion, such generosity of both mind and heart, is miraculous.