Vendela Vida’s The Lovers (2010)
Harper Collins, 2011

Yvonne has travelled to Datça, Turkey twenty-eight years after she first visited it.

Her first visit was with her husband, on their honeymoon.

On her second visit, she travels there alone: her husband has died.

She used to tell people that Peter had been killed, but that led to explanations; those explanations were received awkwardly by listeners, and their responses to that information were hard for Yvonne to cope with.

Either people were too concerned, not concerned enough, or they were troubled by details that Yvonne felt were insignificant.

Conversations were too meaningless or too contrived.

Interactions were not sincere or were painfully truthful.

None of it changed the new single existence she now inhabits.

How does one cope with a loss like this? The Lovers doesn’t answer that for readers, but Vendela Vida’s second novel does offer a glimpse into Yvonne’s struggles.

Her revisiting Datça, as part of her grieving process, recalls the journey undertaken by the narrator of the author’s first novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name.

In both novels, the female narrator has experienced a profound loss (of differing natures) and is seeking to incorporate an absence into her life, into her identity.

Some of what each woman discovers is predictable, but their narratives take some unexpected turns, largely because of changing relationships with other people encountered.

Because the grieving process requires that events of the past be recast, some of these encounters are simply revisions of long-ago emotional entanglements; however, some are fresh and new connections forged with acquaintances who meet Yvonne as she is now, a widow.

But who is Yvonne? That’s a question that even she has trouble answering. Superficial definitions, like identifying her with her profession, are incomplete; she is a history teacher, but she is frustrated by the assumption that everyone makes in thinking she has a constant and deep affection for touring ruins.

And, yet, of course there are lots of ruins in Turkey, remains of what once was there. Amphitheatres, underground hideaways, ancient cave systems, statues, sundials: these are mixed with the smell of musty carpets, the ocean, fish, and honey.

And there are the ruins of Yvonne’s memories, which she examines from angles both familiar and fresh, as she begins to reconstruct.

The setting is sketched loosely; it’s obviously Turkey, but the narrative is primarily interior, so the backdrop is Yvonne’s memory as much as it is a rental home on the shore, a winding mountain road, or a tour boat. Just as in Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, which Yvonne is re-reading now, the setting is memorable, but it’s the interior scenes, the passion of the novel that lingers with the reader.

The connections that Yvonne makes in The Lovers, those forged with people freshly met — from a woman selling almonds on the side of the road to a twenty-something woman with an expected connection to the man who has rented lodgings to Yvonne — are significant, but their most important aspect is in the way that these new relationships force her to reconsider longstanding relationships in her life, demand that she imagine possibilities for the future.

It feels like a familiar tale somehow. But what sets Vendela Vida’s narrative apart from tired tales of a woman rediscovering herself is the pace of her storytelling; there is a tension to the story that stands in contrast to the theme’s quiet nature.

In many ways, Yvonne’s journey takes place more in her head and heart than it does in Datça, which might lead readers to expect an ambling, spiral of a tale, but The Lovers moves quickly and determinedly.

And perhaps even more surprisingly, it manages to offer a sense of sense of satisfaction as Yvonne’s story draws to a close, even though of course there can be no true resolution in a tale such as this.

Vendela Vida’s novels can easily be read in a single-sitting, but they are not easily forgotten. That’s partly because her themes have universal appeal, and it’s partly because she handles her characters deftly — relentlessly engaging her readers in their lives.

Have you read her work before?