At the beginning of Vendela Vida's second novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, Clarissa Iverton's mother informs her that she was named Clarissa in order to rewrite history. Though it will be years until Clarissa fully comprehends this statement, Vida explores whether such a revision is, in fact, possible. Throughout the novel, she poses the question: Can we escape who we are? Her answer, quite simply, is yes, we can.
From the time her mother forever turns her back on her family during a holiday shopping trip to the mall, Clarissa views herself as the opposite of her mother's daughter. After years of trying to bask in the fickle spotlight of her mother's love, with her mother's absence Clarissa becomes caring, responsible and trustworthy in short, the antithesis of her mother. This idea, however, is abruptly shattered after the unexpected death of her father and a grief-fueled trip to Lapland. In the outer reaches of the Arctic Circle, she discovers not only that she shares similarities with her mother, but also that their lives are eerily parallel. Confronted with knowledge concerning both her mother's past and her own, Clarissa is faced with the option of correcting the mistakes of both. In doing so, she realizes that the sins of her mother are surprisingly easy to replicate or to avenge. It is up to Clarissa, however, to determine which path to choose.
An editor of the literary magazine The Believer (and wife of novelist and McSweeney's editor Dave Eggers), Vida has a clean and crisp writing style, almost staccato in the way it punctuates details and illuminates emotions. As she sweeps through different stages of Clarissa's life, Vida changes the narrative style, capturing both the warped logic of a teenager and the jaded attitude of an almost-30 woman with equal skill. Her language does not compete with her story, yet it is not rare to pause over a particularly well-crafted phrase or description and turn it over in one's mind with delighted approval. Through the stories of Clarissa and her mother, Vida explores the notion of how much of our past we are able to escape and how much we are burdened to repeat. Meredith McGuire writes from San Francisco.