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The Sunlit Night


The Sunlit Night

Pictured neatly in the far north near the Norwegian Sea, a midnight sun shines down. It can last for weeks, or for hours, turning the horizon a beautiful mix of colors. It can also leave the small island it covers in darkness for days, only to give way to a sun that lasts for months --- creating an alien and lyrically distinct landscape. Those who inhabit the island are misfits, lost souls, and some have been long gone from society. They are searching for truth, desire and a reason not to return to the everyday world where the sun and its people both have set plans on how they will function.

The preceding acts as the setting for Rebecca Dinerstein’s debut novel, THE SUNLIT NIGHT. We start with Frances, a Manhattan art student who is set to marry her college boyfriend, Robert Mason. However, after a dramatic breakup, she follows her heart to the Viking Museum near the North Pole. Here she meets the resident artist Nils, a man whose words are short, clear and often mix English and Norwegian. “Ja?” he replies when questioned.  We know then, when Frances asks how many artists live here and Nils replies, “You and me,” you understand that it isn’t a threatening statement. It’s an isolating, lonely fact.

"Rebecca Dinerstein gives us the beauty of landscape and some bits of psychological thriller, but mostly she gifts us with the poetic and surreal --- mixing together an uncommon and inspired story. "

Interestingly enough, Frances’ perspective comes from a first-person account. Her outlook is optimistic, but we are never quite sure if she’s giving us an honest narration. So when we meet her later through the point of view of her counterpart, the young Russian immigrant Yasha, it is a unique perspective in the novel. We’re likely to go from Frances’ first-person view to switching to a third-person narrative in which Yasha and Frances are given a rather detached, objective point of view that narrates all the characters.

Think novels like Paul Auster’s INVISIBLE or William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy, two of the best examples of switching points of view, as well as time and perspective. THE SUNLIT NIGHT is not as brash, but it is inspired --- at any moment, it can change from the third-person telling of Yasha straight to the first-person account of Frances. It creates an offbeat and unconventional perspective.

In addition, the book is lyrically savvy, its greatest asset. “The world was perpetually visible…. The midnight sun came in shades of pink. The fjords rushed up onto white sand beaches and the sand made the water Bermuda green. The houses were always red…”  Its gift for serene moments such as these are coupled with Dinerstein’s wonderfully poetic ambience. We get the flip side to this world as well, thousands of miles away, back in the US when the grounding of both Frances and Yasha’s world are revealed to us. Frances has parents who are rich in custom. They forbid her sister, Sarah, from marrying a man who is not Jewish --- and their oddball sense evokes more than a few curious moments. (They both oddly have a love for apples and ketchup collectively, and I am not sure of the significance here.) But they are less concerned with love and more interested in fitting their own ideals, however out of touch they seem.

Yasha, on other hand, works in a bakery with his larger-than-life father on Brighton Beach. Their mother, Olyana, returns and forces Yasha to tell his father she is back. Their relationship is mixed --- Yasha feels abandoned by her, resentful of her new boyfriend, but conflicted by her ties to him as his mother. When Yasha’s father suddenly dies, he must fulfill his father’s final wish of burying him in the peaceful top of the world. It is an obligation in which he stays stern, even when others are telling him that to do so is a farce. What follows is a dysfunctional, humorous and quirky family reunion where Yasha’s mother, her boyfriend and her uncle bring together Yasha’s father in a poorly constructed casket to the top of the world for a funeral. There’s humor here as the communication between everyone involved is rough at best, but Yasha’s grief is real. And his unending thoughts of his father’s afterlife are dark.

Reading through THE SUNLIT NIGHT, you learn the logic of the northern language, the strange patterns of the sun and the customs that individuals hold dear. Rebecca Dinerstein gives us the beauty of landscape and some bits of psychological thriller, but mostly she gifts us with the poetic and surreal --- mixing together an uncommon and inspired story. Whether one chooses to follow the sun into the north or return to the comfort of family, in THE SUNLIT NIGHT there’s always the underlying desire that perhaps one won’t have to face the end of the world alone.

Reviewed by Stephen Febick on June 19, 2015

The Sunlit Night
by Rebecca Dinerstein

  • Publication Date: May 3, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • ISBN-10: 1632861143
  • ISBN-13: 9781632861146