A tale for winter

And Now You Can Go
by Vendela Vida

I partly picked this because the stylised cover picture looked like a girl walking in the snow and I thought it would fit nicely with my wintry feeling. However, aside from the book starting in December, it was hardly wintry at all. Quite good, though.

Ellis has only recently moved to New York for grad school when she is accosted during a walk in the park by a man with a gun. She manages to escape after quoting poetry in an attempt to change the man’s mood. The book opens with this encounter and goes on to describe the next few months of Ellis learning to deal with what has happened, how it has changed her and how others treat her.

This isn’t the dark story that it might seem from that description. Ellis is funny, terrible with relationships and continually frustrated by everyone else’s expectations of how she should act now that she is officially a victim. Not that this is a comedy either. I really don’t know how to classify it. Maybe as a character piece?

Vida does a good job of collating the various reactions a person might get to the announcement that they’ve been held at gunpoint. There’s the people who suddenly want to hang out with her, the people who want to protect her, the people full of advice. But every one of them is a rounded character as well, fully and fallibly human.

This book challenges preconceptions. Ellis’s attacker is white and politely spoken. His intention is not to rob or rape Ellis. Vida deliberately leads the reader astray, omitting important details until later in the story.

This is definitely a literary novel, in that it’s about the effects of events rather than events themselves, and it picks out interesting little details, but it also has a clear storyline with a decisive beginning and end.

First published in 2003 by Jonathan Cape.

Cold or cool?

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
by Vendela Vida

I picked this book up due to a combination of hearing that Vida was one of the new generation of young “now” writers I should pay attention to (according to GQ or some magazine like that) and thinking the title was brilliant. Now that I’ve read it I stand by both statements.

There is a certain “coolness” about Vida’s writing; it’s hard to describe. She’s both a step back from the action and yet lets you right inside the main character’s mind. It’s detached but still emotionally affecting. The detachment is backed up by the literal cold of the Lapland setting, and in that respect reminded me a little of Snow by Orhan Pamuk (which I loved).

Clarissa was 14 when her mother disappeared. Now aged 28, following the death of her father, she decides to go to Lapland to follow a hunch about the whereabouts of her mother. She leaves suddenly, without telling anyone, even her fiance, where she is going. The combination of grief for her father and the complete strangeness of Finland give her a strange basis for an adventure, one that is bound up in unearthing family secrets and bringing to the surface secrets of her own.

The writing is very easy to get on with, although it deals with some dark subjects, but it did take me a while to get used to the detached style and a little longer to warm to the character of Clarissa. She carries such sadness and her story is beautifully told, with flashes of humour and a heartbreaking sense of finality.

The one thing I struggled with is that I felt this ought to have been a book about a woman striking out alone, discovering inner strength, and instead she turns again and again to men for help. There was a hint that this was just Finnish culture, and had there been women around offering help she’d have gladly taken it, but it still grated a little.

Overall I greatly enjoyed the story. Some aspects were predictable, others completely unexpected. I already have another of Vida’s books in my TBR and I don’t think I’ll be leaving it on the shelf for long.

First published in the USA by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, in 2007.