Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt | Secrets and strangers

This is the second novel by Siri Hustvedt I've read, and I'm liking her writing more and more. The Summer Without Men was a refreshing read, but The Sorrows of an American cuts deeper. My first thoughts when starting on the novel, was the there are many parallels to The History of Love by Nicola Krauss, which I just read. Once more the story is set in New York, but the setting of the past is somewhere else, and again we are dealing with immigrants. In both novels the protagonist's father has died, and those who are left behind reads the diary of the deceased. In both cases we are dealing with a mystery in the past that the protagonist is trying to unravel.

The Sorrows of an American introduces us to siblings Erik and Inga Davidsen following the death of their father. Erik is a recently divorced psychiatrist, and Inga is a recently widowed writer and mother of Sonia. Inga's late husband Max was a famous writer, and we can draw some clear parallels between Siri Hustvedt and the character of Inga, who sometimes suffers seizures. Among their father Lars' papers, Erik and Inga find an old letter which implies that their father was involved with someone's death, and that he took this secret with him to the grave. Lars edited his diaries before his death, and Erik starts searching for clues to find out who his father really was. This takes us back in time to a harsh life during the depression, to war time horrors that haunted their father into walking at night in an attempt to escape his demons.

While Erik is getting to grips with the loss of his father, the beautiful Miranda and her daughter Eggy move in to the downstairs of Erik's house. The lonely Erik quickly develops an erotic fascination with Miranda, but when photographs of Miranda and Eric start appearing on his doorstep, Erik senses that something is wrong.

Meanwhile, Inga is harassed by a journalist who suggests that her late husband might have had some secrets from her. Another woman enters the picture, and with her some letters Max apparently wrote to her, and which supposedly contain some great revelation. Inga wants to protect her daughter Sonia from these news, and Sonia has had enough on her plate. Two years previously, Sonia witnessed people falling out of the Twin Towers on 9/11. Following her father's death, Sonia has not shed a tear. Psychiatrist Erik is worried about her, but can only be patient as the girl tries to express herself in poetry.

In her narrative, Hustvedt ties connections between the second world war, 9/11 and the war on Iraq and Afghanistan. She is preoccupied with the physical damages on the body, as well as the psychological scars that might stay hidden. She goes about this in a powerful way, tying together the narrative of Erik's father Lars, who felt the war on his body and came back a changed man, who used his wife's name, Marit, as an involuntary verbal tic or mantra, to cling on to, to that of the dead and wounded - physical and psychological - of 9/11 and the following wars.

A strong motif in the novel is that of someone you know appearing as a stranger. Erik has to reconcile with the fact that the father he might know, had secrets that can change their perception of him. Inga has to realise that her husband cheated on her, while Sonia is afraid of reading his books because she is scared of not recognising her father in his writings. The photos Erik finds of Miranda have been distorted somehow, but the worst situation is when Erik sees a photo of himself that he can't recognise. In contrast, one of Erik's friends, Burton, dons women's clothes to spy on the people that are causing problems for Inga. To Erik, Burton is coming into his own.

Everyone is hiding something. Even Erik, who in his profession is used to get to the core of the truth from his patients. However, this period in Erik's life marks a crisis. He tells us he is lonely, and in his encounters with his patients, it becomes more and more clear that Erik is struggling. They are getting under his skin, and drawing a line between his patients and himself is becoming increasingly difficult.

I really enjoyed this book. Inga expresses a feeling of being in her late husband's shadow, but I really hope Siri Hustvedt is not worried about being in her husband Paul Auster's shadow. In fact, it is only Burton-turned-private-eye that brings to mind Auster's writing. Siri Hustvedt is a powerful author in her own right. In her acknowledgements, she admits that the diary excerpts belong to her own father, and one of the most moving parts for me, the newspaper piece about "Dave the Pencil Man" is about her great uncle.

Once more, Siri Hustvedt baffles me with her knowledge, her imaginative powers and her excellent prose. The Sorrows of an American is a complex story which has mysteries within mysteries within mysteries. We get to the bottom of most of them, but the rest is left to our imagination. Siri I hope you have plenty more novels of this calibre left in you, because I'll sure make efforts to read them.

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