The Sunlit Night
By Rebecca Dinerstein Bloomsbury Circus/Paperback/ 249pages/$29.91/Books Kinokuniya/3/5
At Norway's Lofoten islands near the Arctic Circle, it is a long day's journey into the day. The day is interminable, and nightfall is when the splendid midnight sun dips lightly below the water's surface before climbing back into the sky.
The outlandish backdrop of choice by American author Rebecca Dinerstein was inspired by her trip to an artist's commune in the area. Just like the unending day, Dinerstein's debut novel is initially stark and interesting, but gradually grows disorienting and drawn out.
Despite the story's exotic locale, its plot is rudimentary - two young lovers cross paths under unlikely circumstances and must decide whether to stay together.
Young Frances takes up an artist's residency to nurse her breakup wounds and escape her unhappy Jewish upbringing in a tiny, claustrophobic Manhattan apartment.
Not far behind is Yasha, a second-generation Russian immigrant from Brooklyn, who makes the voyage to fulfil his father's wish of being buried at the top of the world.
Dinerstein, who graduated from Yale, writes sparse, yet crisp and lyrical prose. On Yasha's estrangement from his mother, the manicured and mercurial Olyana, the author offers: "She denied him nothing in those days, no service, no affection, straight up until she decided to deny him a decade."
But, at other points, she comes across as affected and trying too hard: "The world was perpetually visible, so I looked at it".
It is engaging to see her protagonists come of age and grapple with change, mortality and the repercussions of life choices, as the seasons change and the sun wanes.
As Yasha lays his father to rest, his own life has just begun - he is reunited with long-lost family and is finding love.
Frances, who fled halfway across the world from her unravelling family, finds herself sucked back in when her newly separated parents deride her sister's non-Jewish choice of partner.
Dinerstein, who published a book of poems on her year in Lofoten, paints a beautiful picture of its rugged, Eden-like landscape. "The fjords rushed up onto white-sand beaches… Mountains rose steeply behind each village - menaces and guardians."
She also shines at crafting supporting characters - both Yasha's mother, who conceals her insecurities and affection for her son with histrionics, and Frances' father, a medical textbook illustrator ravaged by self-doubt and regret, are fascinating character studies.
Less endearing, however, are her caricature portrayals of the Nordic folk who populate the town and run its Viking Museum. To her, it seems like they are all loud, hirsute men with names such as Haldor and Sigborn.
The book's pacing feels drawn out, with chunks devoted to incessant details such as museum decorations. There is also a shaky and over-done attempt at allegory to Norse mythology during the burial scene.
Despite some glaring flaws, The Sunlit Night is a novel take on a young adult fiction plot and Dinerstein a promising writer whose voice can only get deeper and richer over time.
If you like this, read: The History Of Love by Nicole Krauss (2006, Penguin, $20.87, Books Kino- kuniya), a meta-textual epic about a Holocaust survivor's journey to trace his childhood love.
Lee Jian Xuan