When you get far enough north, you reach a latitude at which the sun no longer sets during the summer months. (It also, incidentally, doesn’t rise during the winter, but that’s a far less romantic image.) You can look out the window in the middle of the night and find the sun resting comfortably on the horizon, imbuing the sky with a warm reddish light like a perpetual sunset.
It’s a seductive setting -- isolated, beautiful, alien -- and an inspired one for Rebecca Dinerstein’s debut novel, The Sunlit Night. Dinerstein draws two standard characters of New York City literature -- the neurotic, artsy young woman; the identity-conflicted Russian Jewish immigrant -- then implacably pushes them out of the city, all the way to a small island in the Norwegian Sea where it’s daylight for weeks on end.
Frances, shaken by a brutal breakup with the college boyfriend she’d intended to follow to Japan for the summer, takes an artist’s residency at the Viking Museum on the island. With her quarrelsome, eccentric parents on the brink of divorce, and her younger sister’s unexpected engagement stirring up even more family drama, the dream-like remove of the Far North is a welcome escape.
Yasha has lived in Brighton Beach with his father for ten years, ever since his mother sent them off to New York and then failed to follow them as promised. His father runs a bakery with his help; Yasha’s springy curls and aloof manner makes him an object of desire amongst his female high school classmates. But his father’s sudden death leaves 17-year-old Yasha with a final duty to the one person he loves: to bury him at the top of the Earth, where it’s peaceful.
While Frances spends undifferentiated hours of the sunlit day and night helping the resident artist, Nils, swathe a barn, inside and out, in shades of yellow paint for a major art installation, Yasha arrives with a motley entourage: His father, in a cheaply made casket; his coquettish, self-absorbed mother, who’s made a sudden reappearance with a new boyfriend in tow; his uncle, escorting his brother’s body.
Two lost young souls adrift on a mostly unpopulated island, Frances and Yasha move inexorably into orbit around each other. They find comfort in their shared need, their shared youthful confusion, and the unending light surrounding them. Except, of course, that the light isn’t unending. With autumn looming, the two have to decide whether to follow the sun, together or alone.
The oddball humor and pensive lyricism of Frances’s narrative, as well as Yasha’s poignant quest, feel alive and engaging, but the unlikely romance between Frances and Yasha (reminiscent of something from a Wes Anderson film) smacks a bit of fairy-tale wish-fulfillment -- or even a device to ensure the two narrative seem adequately linked together. As offbeat and quiet as their courtship is, it ultimately jars against their dreamlike, inwardly focused narratives.
It’s their individual stories, which give Dinerstein ample opportunity to explore the infinite shades of light and how subtly it governs the rhythms and textures of our lives. Both the pure light and pure darkness offer healing power in the sheer disconnect they create from the gray of the everyday, and Dinerstein evokes this powerful shift with blunt, visual language that brings the reader back to the most basic senses.
The Bottom Line: Despite its Pollyannaish moments, The Sunlit Night heralds the beginning of an intriguing career in fiction during which Dinerstein will hopefully continue to take us off the beaten path.
What other reviewers think: Publishers Weekly: "With provocative insights about the cruelty of abandonment, the concept of home, and the limits of parental and filial love, Dinerstein’s novel is a rich reading experience."
Kirkus: "Dinerstein’s writing is light and lyrical, and her descriptions of the far north are intoxicating."
Who wrote it? The Sunlit Night is Rebecca Dinerstein’s debut novel. She previously published a bilingual English-Norwegian poetry collection entitled Lofoten. She lives in Brooklyn, and researched The Sunlit Night during a fellowship in the Far North, on an island in the Norwegian Sea.
Who will read it? Readers who enjoy whimsical prose and offbeat narratives with bittersweet themes. Fans of Jonathan Safran Foer and Wes Anderson's quietly quirky, meticulously visualized films.
Opening lines: “In the moment after Robert Mason’s condom broke he rolled off me, propped himself on his elbow, and said, ‘What you do doesn’t help anybody.’”
Notable passage: “The world was perpetually visible, so I looked at it. Conditioned by hours in the Yellow Room, I saw the landscape 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. The houses were always red. They appeared in clusters, villages, wherever there lay flat land. Mountains rose steeply behind each village -- menaces and guardians. Each red house was a lighthouse, marking the boundary between one terrain and another, preventing crashes, somehow, providing solace. Nils told me, ‘There are no dangerous animals here, bare flott,’ which meant either ‘only nice ones’ or ‘only ticks.’”
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein Bloomsbury, $26.00 Publishes June 2, 2015
The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.