Honor Clerk on Siri Hustvedt’s latest novel
Born into a second generation Norwegian immigrant family, Erik Davidsen is a divorced New York psychoanalyst with his fair share of sorrows and with a close circle of relations and acquaintances who in turn have their sorrows too. He is a compassionate and sensitive man and the troubles of his family and of his patients are central to his thoughts. He is also lonely, and finds himself involuntarily saying so, out loud. His father has just died, his sister is recently widowed and her famous husband’s life is the subject of intrusive press speculation. Her daughter’s double bereavement is compounded by having witnessed events at the Twin Towers. Shot through his narrative is the story of his father’s life — a harsh rural Minnesota upbringing, haunting war service in the Far East and eventually a college professorship — told partly through a memoir and partly through enquiries that Erik and his sister make following the discovery of a cryptic note in their father’s desk. A cheering counterpoint to this gloom comes in the form of Miranda, Erik’s Jamaican tenant, and her daughter Eglantine, a forcefield of childish exuberance. Father, mother, grandparents, sister, niece, neighbours, friends, patients — each of their histories and troubles form a strand of the story woven together and reaching resolution only in the resolution of Erik’s own internal story.
There is a solid physical immediacy about Siri Hustvedt’s novels, a quality that seems to lift her characters off the page, to make them live and breathe and move in a world that one can feel and touch, and she exploits this facility here to the full.