Sins of the fa­ther shrouded in se­crecy

Alice Spigel­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

SE­CRETS are the stuff of Siri Hustvedt’s nov­els. Filled with mar­vel­lous, ec­cen­tric char­ac­ters who have in­ti­ma­tions of im­pend­ing dis­as­ter, they un­fold from their strange co­coons to re­veal sur­pris­ingly or­di­nary folk. Her mys­ter­ies are fu­elled by fever­ish, un­set­tled minds, with peo­ple who, in the end, qui­etly re­solve their de­spair, leav­ing the reader a lit­tle cheated of full- blown tragedy.

Af­ter Erik David­sen’s fa­ther, Lars, dies, a let­ter writ­ten by an un­known wo­man leads his son on a quest to solve the mean­ing of the mys­te­ri­ous cor­re­spon­dence: ‘‘ Dear Lars, I know you will never ever say noth­ing about what hap­pened . . . It can’t mat­ter now that she’s in heaven or to the ones here on earth. I be­lieve in your prom­ise. Lisa.’’ Erik and his sis­ter are com­pelled to re­solve what had tran­spired be­tween their fa­ther and the mys­te­ri­ous Lisa: had they col­luded to cover up some­one’s death? Had Lars made Lisa preg­nant and left her to dis­pose of the baby? More than a mys­tery, the book re­ally con­cerns Erik’s jour­ney to re­build his life. The sus­pense of Lisa’s tale turns out to be an in­con­se­quen­tial, al­most gra­tu­itous, part of the story. It is the tale of Erik’s per­sonal crises that keeps the pages turn­ing.

Dis­cov­er­ing his fa­ther’s diary, a mov­ing ac­count of Lars’s climb out of a poverty- rid­den early life, trig­gers a melt­down in Erik, a psy­chi­a­trist. His life is al­ready at a low ebb. His wife has de­serted him for an­other man, leav­ing him floun­der­ing not only sex­u­ally but also pro­fes­sion­ally. The de­scrip­tions of his tor­mented ther­apy ses­sions with a frag­ile yet vi­ciously de­struc­tive pa­tient are es­pe­cially poignant.

Erik drains the sad­ness from his fa­ther’s diary and, as he ab­sorbs the sor­rows of an in­her­ited im­mi­grant past, he grieves for both of them. Fi­nally, he is able to feel the pain of Lars’s strug­gle to pull him­self out of the harsh ex­is­tence he had in­her­ited from his own fa­ther, Erik’s grand­fa­ther, one of eight chil­dren born to Nor­we­gian im­mi­grants who had set­tled in the flat­lands of Min­nesota to take up farm­ing.

As the thread of Erik’s de­tec­tive work to track down his fa­ther’s se­crets weaves in and out of the story, he strug­gles to stop his life from dis­in­te­grat­ing. He pins his hopes on woo­ing Mi­randa, a young wo­man who, with her fiveyear- old daugh­ter, has moved into the flat down­stairs from Erik’s apart­ment. But she eludes him, pre­fer­ring a trou­bled and ap­par­ently

dan­ger­ous re­la­tion­ship with her child’s fa­ther, a pho­to­graphic artist.

The book pow­er­fully con­veys the in­her­i­tance of sor­row that is part of the mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence. Even de­scen­dants of sev­eral gen­er­a­tions are af­fected in var­i­ous ways by the strug­gles and hard­ships en­dured by their fore­bears. In Erik’s case, his sen­si­tiv­ity and ded­i­ca­tion to the weak and help­less, es­pe­cially the men­tally ill, echo his fa­ther’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

Hustvedt’s prose is a joy to read, es­pe­cially its ca­dences and the deft sketches of unique, some­times wacky, char­ac­ters.

The diary en­tries of Lars David­sen are au­then­tic: they be­long to Hustvedt’s fa­ther and are a poignant re­minder of his legacy as a child of im­mi­grants. Al­though com­pelling, the diary excerpts do not feel like an in­te­gral part of the story and high­light the dif­fi­cul­ties of mix­ing his­tory and fiction. And al­though it is easy to be­lieve that Lars’s death has con­trib­uted to Erik’s break­down, it is more of a stretch to see how the con­tents of his fa­ther’s diary might have done so.

Erik feels the suf­fer­ing of his an­ces­tors as they wrenched their roots from Euro­pean soil and re­planted them in the New World. His own sor­rows grad­u­ally sub­side in the safety of an Amer­i­can land­scape, and he finds con­tent­ment. In a Euro­pean novel a life cri­sis such as Erik’s would most likely have ended in de­struc­tion.

Hustvedt’s sto­ries tend to es­chew the un­der­ly­ing hope­less­ness and angst of the hu­man con­di­tion that per­me­ate the work of Euro­pean writ­ers such as Kafka or Ca­mus. She writes about the lives of ev­ery­day Amer­i­cans go­ing through a dif­fi­cult per­sonal jour­ney, al­beit fil­tered through a Euro­pean sen­si­bil­ity. The good in hu­man na­ture wins out for the most part, in The Sor­rows of an Amer­i­can and in ear­lier works by Hustvedt such as What I Loved and The En­chant­ment of Lily Dahl . Peo­ple strug­gle through an of­ten dev­as­tat­ing per­sonal cri­sis — the death of a child or a par­ent, a bro­ken mar­riage — from which they emerge vic­to­ri­ous. Po­ten­tially de­struc­tive se­crets which be­guile the reader are re­solved: Lars’s name is cleared, a dan­ger­ous bur­glar turns out to be some­one more be­nign, and ev­ery­one’s in­ten­tions are scrubbed of soot. The sor­row of our Amer­i­can hero dis­solves in the bright sun­light of a promis­ing fu­ture, leav­ing us with an end­ing be­fit­ting the New World.

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