The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein
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|The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: A debut novel as charming as it is quirky. Two young adults from Brooklyn meet in the far north of Norway, where one is an artist's apprentice and the other is burying a beloved father. Bittersweet family backstories and burgeoning romance make this a winner.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 272||Date: June 2015|
|External links: Author's website|
Frances comes from a 'desperately artistic family', her father a medical illustrator and her mother an interior designer. Along with her younger sister Sarah, she grew up in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan: bunk beds for the girls and a fold-out sofa bed for the parents. The claustrophobic atmosphere has gotten to everyone and now, with Frances graduating from college, it looks like the family might fall apart. Her parents argue constantly and disapprove of Sarah's fiancé (not just because he isn't Jewish). Frances has her own romantic crisis: after a pregnancy scare, Robert breaks up with her. A high-flyer with a future in politics, he tells her that her art has no purpose; it isn't helping anyone. 'What does it matter if you do what you love, if what you love doesn't matter?' she asks her father. Still, she has no other prospects, so agrees to take up a painting apprenticeship in the furthest reaches of Norway; 'All I had was a direction, north.'
Meanwhile Yasha is in his final months of high school in Brooklyn. He and his father, Vassily, who runs the neighbourhood bakery, moved here from Russia ten years ago. They waited and waited for Yasha's mother, Olyana, to join them, but she never did. One day she comes and finds Yasha at school; she has been in New York for three months and has a boyfriend she intends to marry. When she asks Yasha to deliver divorce papers to Vassily, he argues that his father's weak heart cannot take the strain. Ironically, Vassily has just booked them tickets back to Russia to look for Olyana. Just as Yasha predicted, when they arrive and Yasha's uncle hands over the divorce papers, Vassily dies of a broken heart. Now it falls to Yasha to fulfil his father's last request to be buried at the top of the world.
All is set for our young lovers to meet. Frances discovers she is the only other artist besides Nils at the Leknes Artist Colony. He is building a stand-alone art installation, The Yellow Room, and requires her help painting it before the inspection deadline. The yellow barn is next to the Viking Museum, and the artist colony where they will sleep is a former mental asylum. When Yasha and Olyana arrive at the Viking Museum for Vassily's burial, he strikes Frances as a sullen, taciturn teenager. It is not until Frances recites the Mourner's Kaddish at the funeral that they seem to connect. The Jewish ritual is a bond between them as well as a link to previous generations. Dinerstein also effectively weaves in Norse mythology: 'This funeral may feel to you like Ragnarök, the End of the World…We bury [Vassily] tonight under the midnight sun to show it is not the end—to show there is light, even in a time of darkness.' Beneath the museum's sculpture of Yggdrasil, the tree of life, their romance begins.
This love story is distinguished chiefly by its unusual location. As the title oxymoron heralds, the stark beauty of the Arctic Circle makes it a setting rife for unexpected happenings. Frances describes her surroundings 'in colorblock. The midnight sun came in shades of pink. The fjords rushed up onto white-sand beaches, and the sand made the water Bermuda-green.' Chapters alternate between Frances's first-person narration and Yasha's third-person perspective. Their relationship has what looks like a natural endpoint: Frances will fly to California for her sister's wedding early in September. Yasha decides to stay in Norway after his father's funeral, but it is unclear whether what he and Frances have will last. Even the four-year gap between them, negligible later in life, seems significant when it's the difference between ages 17 and 21.
I loved the contrast between the emptiness of Arctic Scandinavia and cramped New York City. Scenes where Frances is skyping with her parents – stereotypical squabbling Jews like on Seinfeld – show this particularly well. Still, I think the setting I warmed to most was Vassily's bakery: 'Saturday. Swarm of bagel customers, dearth of poppy seeds. Vassily's pants drenched in a bowlful of spilled eggs.' After I read the scene where Vassily and a customer sing Simon and Garfunkel's 'Homeward Bound', I had the song in my head for days. The stretch between Vassily's funeral and Frances returning to the States can feel a little long and aimless, and none of the Norwegian characters are as well realised as the Russian-Americans, but Dinerstein makes good with a terrific late scene at Sarah's wedding and an ambiguously hopeful ending.
Dinerstein, who herself travelled to Lofoten, Norway and got a bilingual poetry collection and this novel out of the experience, has great things ahead of her. I highly recommend her debut, as charming as it is quirky, to fans of Jonathan Safran Foer.
Great House by Nicole Krauss shares some elements, like Jewish families and storytelling, while Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir has a similar far northern quirkiness. We think you'll also enjoy The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland by Nicolai Houm and Anna Paterson (translator).
You can read more book reviews or buy The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein at Amazon.com.
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