For all that literature explores the gnarled paths of the human condition, the fragility of the human psyche – particularly under the hammer of grief – is often neglected or misinterpreted territory. The human mind rarely breaks with the cacophony of gnashing teeth and rending hair; rather, it fragments within the boundaries imposed by society – a shattered window with spiderwebbed pieces held in place by the mesh sheets of propriety. In The Lovers, Vendela Vida probes with delicate accuracy into the cracks that form in one woman following the death of her husband.
Vida’s writing is quiet, spare, and lovely, and is all the more powerful for these traits. A slim 225 pages, The Lovers ranges from disorientation to redemption and back. Initially, all we know of Yvonne is that she has been widowed and has come to Dacta, Turkey, the site of her honeymoon, prior to meeting her grown children for a cruise. Although The Lovers is told in the third person, Vida drops the reader into her protagonist’s head through the simple intimacy of omission. Yvonne’s last name is never given; details about her life, even down to physical description, unfold gradually, as though she and the reader have known each other for a lifetime. We see Dacta, and the strangeness of that alien world, and the strangeness even of the familiar through Yvonne’s grief. Grief alters the lens through which we view the world and are viewed. “Burlington, Vermont, her home for half her life – the married half – had become a dollhouse, the fourth wall removed, the vacated and cluttered rooms of her solitary existence visible for all to see.”
Yvonne begins the novel lost. Physically lost, she cannot find her ride from the airport, yet we sense, already, that she is lost also in the manner of one who has spent too much time alone. Vida captures perfectly the disjointed existence of social isolation, the sense that one has slid into a universe that parallels but does not interact with the universe of humanity. Until Yvonne meets a Turkish boy named Ahmet, people slide in and out of her life, impacting but not truly interacting with her. Yvonne’s landlord in her vacation home and his estranged wife visit the house separately, but with agendas that suggest that the visits are about them only; Yvonne is more of a prop than a guest. The sexual overtones to the interactions with Ali Celik, the landlord, and his wife Ozlem serve to increase the disjointed sense of Yvonne’s stay in Dacta where nothing is as she remembered.
The memories that do surface for Yvonne are less the memories of an idyllic honeymoon than they are the regrets inherent to a lived life. As the Yvonne’s time in Dacta unfolds, so does the story of her marriage and the troubled relationship between Yvonne, her late husband Peter, and their daughter Aurelia. Yvonne’s relationship with Ahmet parallels the revelations of her regrets and failures.
The Lovers depicts with disconcerting accuracy the narcissism of grief. Only tragedy pulls Yvonne from the self-imposed, and disorienting isolation of her cocoon-like stay in Dacta, forcing her to interact with others, and to seek an understanding of the factors that create loss and redemption. It is telling that Yvonne is not given a last name; her story is the story of anyone who has drowned in the isolation of grief. Through her writing, Vendela Vida throws us a lifeline, offering a strange and not altogether comfortable redemption. Novels are often termed ‘haunting,’ but The Lovers truly haunts the mind, lingering, puzzling, and tugging at the reader.