Sins of the father shrouded in secrecy
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.