Lit by poetry: Dinerstein’s “The Sunlit Night” illuminates

Frances grew up in a tiny New York apartment with her parents and younger sister, where they all still live even though both girls are in college. “Everything about my family was small,” she tells us, enumerating the smallness of their aspirations, physical stature, and living quarters: “Our apartment unfurled itself…the sofa bed opening up for my parents, filling the living room until it was nothing but a man and a woman in bed, with no room left, the foot of the mattress reaching just to the knob of the front door.”

One can just imagine a loving family surviving such conditions, but the love is gone.

For Yasha’s father, Vassily, love would never die. Yasha’s mother had encouraged them to move to the U.S. from Russia some ten years ago, promising she’d be along soon, and Yasha, now nearly 18 years old, can barely remember her.

In travel, getting there is half the fun, and Dinerstein is in no hurry for her characters to get from New York to the destination we all know they’re heading for—Lofoten, north of the Arctic Circle, in the endless days of summer.

Family turmoil spurs Frances on. When her sister announces her engagement, her parents counter with news of their divorce—and raise her with angry, ugly disapproval. Their tiny home is splitting apart, so with nowhere else to go Frances accepts a strange fellowship in painting—to study with Nils and help with his Yellow Room, a KORO (Public Art Norway) project painted entirely in shades of yellow.

Yasha takes a more circuitous route. Vassily wants to reconcile with his wife, Olyana, so they close up the bakery and fly to Moscow. But before they can leave Yasha is approached by a very strange woman—his mother. She wants a divorce. She asks Yasha to tell Vassily, and when he refuses she enlists Vassily’s brother in Russia. This proves too much for Vassily’s heart, and he dies.

Vassily’s wish to be buried at “the top of the world” sends them all to Lofoten, where the lovable crew of Norwegian miscreants running a fictional Viking Museum (which we are assured is not the Lofotr Vikingmuseum…but which is clearly based on it) have agreed to help.

Family is a major theme of this book. Both families are so clearly dysfunctional as to sometimes seem unbelievable—yet there is real love between many of the characters, particularly between Yasha and his father. Frances Skypes with her parents, who continue to appear together in the apartment even as it empties of their possessions, united in their vitriolic rage that their youngest daughter would dare to marry, and with her sister, who becomes more and more distraught even as she prepares to marry the man she hopes is her true love.

Between Frances and Nils is an enigmatic, unfinished relationship, with a more defined romantic relationship between her and Yasha emerging. Every male besides Yasha seeks a relationship with Olyana, who stays on after the funeral to play a Valkyrie at the museum—and attempt in her self-centered way to forge a relationship with the son she abandoned.

In fact, under the relentless summer sun, most of the characters behave like teens experimenting with love for the first time. The two youngest are, in many ways, the most emotionally mature. What they will do with that maturity is another theme. With no homes to return to, what now?

Of course, Norway plays a major role in The Sunlit Night. Dinerstein herself lived in Lofoten for many years, long enough to learn the language (she has also written a bilingual collection of poetry, Lofoten) and absorb much of what makes the country compelling and quirky—yet not so long that she’s lost the ability to see it from the outside. Some of my favorite moments in the novel are these, like when Yasha speculates about a character’s grandmother, “likely named Gerta, or Blorg,” or Frances marveling at the various uses Norwegians have for brunost—not all of which involve eating it.

The Norwegian characters function almost like a chorus, popping up frequently to impart imperfectly translated wisdom and kindness.

Like the brightness of a months-long summer day, the power of Dinerstein’s descriptive prose carries this lyrical, literary novel through when plot alone won’t suffice. The characters, well-drawn and sometimes even surprising, make realistic choices as summer finally comes to an end and their complicated lives go on.

This article originally appeared in the July 24, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly (now The Norwegian American). To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call (206) 784-4617.

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