Vendela Vida's third novel, The Lovers, is the story of Yvonne, 53, recently widowed and returning to Turkey, the site of her honeymoon about 26 years before. She has rented an opulent home in Datça (zebra rug, rifle collection, spiral staircase) and from there, intends to embark upon her most risky venture yet: the act of remembering. Will she, in revisiting the past, pierce through her grief? Is grief open to negotiation?
Immediately, Vida sets up an atmosphere of eeriness. Her narrative style is meditative, lithe, unencumbered. Yvonne drives to Datça in the "sepia darkness." Exploring her rental house of tile and steel, she stumbles upon a nude photograph under the couch: a woman with her legs spread, a red ribbon tied beneath her breasts. A hook hangs above one bed. A contraption of straps and chains lies out on top of another; "Yvonne couldn't identify its purpose." In the daylight, the lush Datça of yore reveals itself to be one of feral cats, hooting owls and abandoned hotels. The beach is filthy. The tourists' tans are an unnatural yellow. Even the spoon Yvonne uses for her first meal abroad "tasted like other people's mouths, a century of tongues."
Then Yvonne finds the ancient city of Knidos, its beauty preserved. And there, she encounters Ahmet. A boy of about 10, Ahmet is as solitary as Yvonne, spending his days collecting and selling seashells on the beach. It is Ahmet who gives Yvonne pull and purpose. It is Ahmet she yearns to see. Their relationship follows the trajectory of a compressed, platonic love affair.
"Just to the right of the middle," Yvonne assesses her presence as appealing yet unthreatening, thereby lending itself easily to friendship. Ahmet is different. He is taciturn, unimpressed. A history teacher, Yvonne reflects upon her students, "It was the reluctant ones whose respect or attention she most pointedly sought." With Ahmet, she succeeds.
And yet, the sense of menace pervades. A waiter throws Yvonne a loathing look. Ahmet's widowed grandmother disapproves of her companionship. The renter's wife, the beautiful Özlem, besets Yvonne; heavy with confession, she reveals her husband hit her and this home is, in fact, his girlfriend's (of the red ribbon and the sex swing). Yvonne wakes to the musty, horrifying swoops of an owl. Beyond these harbingers of doom is Yvonne's portentous recounting of her husband's death to a couple, dull with blitheness, on a yacht during a storm. They remind Yvonne, "No response is adequate."
Yvonne has grown twin children, the brilliant Matthew and the troubled Aurelia. She and her husband met in a "fantastically romantic way." They had a good marriage. They lived "comfortably in the comfortable state of Vermont." With this quotidian backdrop, her husband, Peter is violently killed: an errand, a car crash, the end of a life.
Vida - an American novelist, journalist and editor who lives in the San Francisco area with her husband, writer and publisher Dave Eggers - perfectly captures the nature of tragedy. Un-poetic in its timing, the tragic moment occurs within a string of minor ones. It is not distinguished in its arrival or recognized in its aftermath. On the heels of her husband's memorial service, a stranger leaves a nasty note on her windshield decrying her parking job as "selfish." This is a world wherein misfortune is not righted; a widow is not absolved from further mourning. Loss can be compounded by more loss.
When Yvonne, attempting to correct a perceived betrayal, refocuses her attentions on Ahmet and commissions him to retrieve the most exquisite shells from the Aegean, her young friend is up to the perilous task.
Utterly compelling, The Lovers is never without humour and intrigue. Vida's Yvonne is sensuous, wily and as vulnerable as a child. Unhinged by sorrow, she is independent in her actions and courageous in her admissions. Vida's prose is spare, fluid and urgent, a dark and graceful reportage of the heart. There is no excess here; the text is nearly bereft of adjectives.
As with And Now You Can Go and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, Vida's flourish is in her setting. It is in a sandstorm between the fairy chimneys of the city of Konya that Yvonne finally receives grief's single gift: renewed sight. Vida hints at redemption. Perhaps it is grief, as much as love, that remakes us.
Claudia Dey's non-fiction follow-up to her 2008 debut novel Stunt is called How To Be a Bush Pilot: A Field Guide to Getting Luckier . It comes out this fall. It has quite a few adjectives.