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Pickle Me This

July 28, 2010

The Lovers by Vendela Vida

I will never forget my experience of reading Vendela Vida’s previous novel Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. I’d brought it away for the weekend, dipping in and out of between various activities, and I wasn’t sure what to think. The prose was so spare, the plot seemed aimless, and the font was just too big for a book so slim. I wasn’t sure if I’d been wasting my time, as I sat down to read the final stretch as our train got close to Toronto. I’d been to a wedding and won the centrepiece, so there was a bucket full of flowers on the seat beside me, and in those last few pages, Vida turned her entire novel inside out and into a story that was so affecting and devastating, I felt like an idiot for ever having doubted.

Her latest novel The Lovers lacks the punch of Let the Northern Lights…, but it has an effect that’s more sustaining. And it’s funny how often I’ll pick up a book of commerical fiction and sing its praises because, wonder of wonders, there be plot there! Forgetting that plot and literary fiction are not mutually exclusive, and thank you Vendela Vida for reminding me.

Because something is particularly ominous from the book’s beginning, Yvonne waiting in the airport for the ride she has arranged along with her vacation rental. It’s been two years since her husband’s death, and she’s venturing out into the world again, on a trip to Turkey to get away from her memories and remember those that she’s forgotten. She has been to Turkey before, on her honeymoon twenty-eight years previously, but the place she finds this time won’t be familiar.

Yvonne hasn’t been able to find her ride because she’s been waiting 0n the wrong side of the airport, which sets a precedent for everything to follow. All outcomes the opposite of her expectations, everything resembling something from afar that turns out to be different at close range. Returning to Datca, she finds the hotel where she and her husband stayed is now abandoned and crumbling. The holiday house she’d chosen from the internet is not as close to the sea as she’d been promised, and there are sordid books on the shelves, a sex swing on the third floor. She leaves the door open and an owl gets in.

Vida’s writing is angular, full of edges to grip, and– as Yvonne finds Turkey– everything is almost ordinary, but not quite. I’ve read about birds in the house, but never owls, and never about the stench the owl carries with him, and how between the owl and sex swing, Yvonne fears the house will restrict all of itself to her and she’ll have to sleep on the roof. Vida articulates the awkward details of human interaction so perfectly– Yvonne finds another American who pronounces a Turkish name differently than she has, and she wonders which of them is right (if either?). The experience of an American tourist in a poor country, how Yvonne vows to buy goods from a different local merchant every day, and then finds she can’t tell them apart. The local boy who Yvonne befriends on the beach, who she gives cash to for shells he will dive for, and the local people start talking about their relationship.

Are things as ominous as they seem, or is Yvonne simply paranoid? Has the sex swing tainted her experience and now everything seems sordid? She begins to reflect upon her marriage, and find it was not all it appeared either, that the banalities that frocked her with her widowhood did not begin to describe her experience of loss, or how complicated her marriage had been. There remains the matter of the owl in the house though, and then one afternoon when the boy on the beach is diving for shells, he swims out and disappears.

Yvonne plants herself at the centre of this drama, as Western tourists tend to do when they’re at large in the world, but she will soon discover that her role in all of this is actually incidental. Not that her actions don’t have consequences, but the consequences matter far more than she does. That in order to come to terms with her own loss, and what has happened since, she not only has to transport herself as she already has done, but she has to transport herself outside of herself. To get lost if she’s ever going to get found.

A wonderful, gripping, thoughtful book. Vida’s novel is the third in a loosely-linked trilogy about women in moments of crisis, but she has done something different and stronger with each one. A novelist who takes nothing for granted about the form, seemingly rediscovering it each time she revisits it, she makes much out of little and the effect of it lingers long after the last page is read.

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