“What used to be doesn’t leave us,” muses Erik Davidsen, the narrator of Siri Hustvedt’s complex and thoughtful novel The Sorrows of An American, as he reflects on the influence of his past on the present. Indeed, this sense of melancholy and contemplation infuses most of the action of a novel that explores themes of immigration, personal and social mourning and the frailties of the human mind.
For such a contemplative novel, The Sorrows of An American packs in an awful lot of plot.
Erik is a New York psychiatrist of Norwegian parentage who is grieving following the death of his father Lars. When Erik and his sister Inge are sorting through their father’s papers, they discover a cryptic note, which suggests a family secret they feel compelled to unravel.
While this secret threatens to weaken the foundations of the Davidsen family, Erik and Inge have other problems. Erik finds himself falling in love with Miranda, a single mother who has moved into the flat beneath his. Despite Miranda’s disinterest, her five-year-old daughter Eglantine forms a strong bond with Erik while Miranda’s ex-boyfriend starts to infiltrate their lives in an unnerving fashion.
Erik’s sister Inge is in a similarly difficult situation. She is the widow of Max Blaustein, a famous writer and film director and she has recently been contacted by an actress who claims to have letters that could ruin Max’s reputation. As a journalist starts to take an interest in the story, Inge and her daughter are also trying to deal with the trauma of the scenes they witnessed on 9/11.
As Erik and Inge try to make sense of both their father’s diaries of his army tour at the end of the Second World War (beautiful passages taken from Hustvedt’s own deceased father’s writings) and the letters purporting to prove the existence of Max’s love child, they begin to draw the conclusion that human beings are doomed to repeat that which causes them pain.
I’ve often thought that none of us is what we imagine, that each of us normalizes the terrible strangeness of inner life with a variety of convenient fictions.
Interspersed throughout the narrative are references to Erik’s patients, all repeating and repeating the same destructive behaviour. In a lesser writer’s hands, this volume of sheer plot could be overwhelming, but it is testament to Hustvedt’s considerable skill that not only is none of this confusing, it is clearly beautifully plotted and paced so that each narrative strand layers upon itself to produce a story of great depth and richness.
This is an incredibly subtle novel, one that blends memories, dreams, art and pain to create an exhilarating story that explores the power of human relationships.
To some this may sound ponderous and heavy, but it is not. Hustvedt may not pander to her reader, but she knows when to inject warmth and humour into her tale. The scenes between Erik and Miranda’s daughter Eggy are beautifully judged and Erik’s friend Burton, who is in love with Inge, provides some amusing light relief in his attempts to keep Inge from the journalist who is determined to blow her private life apart.
If there is a weakness in this novel, it may be that the secrets that Inge and Erik work so hard to uncover are not as dramatic or as life changing as they, or the reader had hoped for. While this slows the narrative a little towards the end of the book, it may actually be an intentional choice by Hustvedt – a warning that life does not come with neat solutions and that in our exploration of past pain, acceptance may be more important than resolution.
This was the first book I have read by Siri Hustvedt but the quality of the writing, the intellectual depth and the unwillingness to offer easy solutions means I look forward to exploring more of her work. The Sorrows of An American is a beautiful hymn to all the manifestations of human love.
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