“A word can be like a cellar door. Just a few steps and you’re in a dark place.”
In the brisk September of 2007 when I walked the grassy flat of Stora Alvaret, I was looking for graves, if not expressly ghosts. The alvar is a low, dry plain on the southern end of the Swedish island of Öland, dotted with stone ships and other Iron Age funeral commemorations, and it was these I was researching, trying to pull together threads distant from me for a graduate school project. When Lauren Cress, the protagonist of Diane Zinna’s captivating debut novel The All-Night Sun, walks the same landscape of rough-hewn stone and long-stilled windmills, she’s caught in a net knotted by both the living and the dead.
John Gardner had an old saw about plots—that there are only two, and in one, someone goes on a journey, and in the other, a stranger comes to town—which is to say that maybe there’s only one plot and a choice of point of view. But any plot in the right hands can work its magic on a reader. Zinna’s novel deftly weaves together the premise of the journey and the stranger through the long light of Sweden’s Midsommar and the deep shadow of grief.
The novel’s central action is deceptively simple—mild-mannered adjunct professor takes ill-advised trip with a student—but its execution is gripping from the start, aptly rooted in the power of storytelling. Lauren first meets Siri, a Swedish college student in Lauren’s composition class for international students, through the tales Siri tells about her home.
In essays, Siri had written about this place imbued with magic: trolls; water spirits; the holiday called Midsommar, when everyone flees the cities for the countryside, when everyone turns young again. Midsommar, when the sun didn’t set and night’s torments didn’t come. Really? She’d agreed, yes, it was that green, that fresh, that new—everything would just be thawing out.
In Lauren’s first-person narration, her hunger for such a place is palpable—for a place where magic can still happen, for the idea of beginnings, for any kind of respite from her grief. After her parents die in a car accident when Lauren is only just legally an adult, leaving her utterly alone, the pall of their deaths drapes everything. She has no extended family, no friends close enough or old enough to help her wade these waters. She notices very quickly the way her truth affects others, so she alters it or omits it entirely through the next ten years of her life, shaping her story according to the cantilever of others’ expectations, even at her own expense:
When I met new people, I did not tell them about it. The nature of my parents’ deaths made it hard for me to talk about. The idea of their drowning in a car—I feared that by sharing it, the image would continue to live in other people’s minds. And they’d want to say something, but what can someone say? The car would just rev and dive in the strangers’ thoughts, and they’d be left on the bridge without a clue of how to respond to me. I came to believe the most polite thing to do was let the memory of it die inside me. And part of me started to die away with it.
Lauren’s fixation on images leads her to idealize her landscapes, which Zinna handles with striking precision and transportive beauty. The small liberal arts college where Lauren teaches is sculpted, well-planted: “its alcoves filled with art, bronze plaques fastened to the corners of white buildings, hedges cut into the shapes of animals.” There are roses, endless varieties, and walking paths, a place that, in its order and structure and community, creates a scaffold on which Lauren hopes to build: “I liked to think that at some point Stella Maris could feel like a family.” By allowing the college to impose its expectations on her—a facsimile of peace and orderliness—Lauren is able to think, at another moment of loneliness, “Having [the roses’] names inside me made it easier when that boyfriend moved on again in three months’ time.”
When Siri appears, and in her words, Sweden, with all its textures and colors and folklore, has scaffolding that only appears sturdier. But it’s a frame that showcases another sense of loss: the way in which Lauren has been robbed of the young adult life she watches her students experience. The students’ presence highlights absence, amplifying Lauren’s unmooredness—too old and too much in a position of authority, as a teacher, to be properly within her students’ sphere; too young, too contingent to fit with other faculty—and Zinna’s narrator meets that omnipresent sense of absence with longing more than cynicism, an aching tenderness that is the gentlest kind of ravenousness. And so when Lauren discovers this stranger, Siri, also bears a similar burden of grief, it is inevitable that she will accept the friendship and the attendant journey Siri offers, no matter that it might cost her position, any hope of professional advancement.
The novel opens with a prologue in a kind of compressed time, which serves as an introduction to Siri, yes, but also an introduction to the trip and its final, shattering days. Just as present is the Swedish landscape whose bright magic—in Siri’s tellings—is catalyst to so many things. Lauren and Siri and Siri’s friends—all of whom are a decade younger than Lauren—go to a beach on the northern end of Öland called Neptuni Åkrar.
Neptuni Åkrar is a rocky shore punctuated by long, low slabs of indigo-gray stone revealed and hidden by the tide. Here is where, on my trip years ago, I dipped my fingers into the Baltic and brought them to my mouth, hoping that the salt water would help me understand the place, its history. In The All-Night Sun, it is at Neptuni Åkrar—Neptune’s beach—that it becomes clear to Lauren that there is altogether too much she doesn’t understand, that there are choices Siri demands she make that feel impossible, whether because of their differences in age, their differing attitudes toward Siri’s brother Magnus, or the way their griefs spark against each other. Still there is an undercurrent of beauty at every turn, a desperation to want the illusion offered by the place. Of that moment, later in the novel, Lauren says, “It had become so easy to believe in magic by then. I’d seen it and felt it in the places we’d been; in words, in light, and then that morning, in the inky flowers that bloomed in the water at Neptuni Åkrar, where Siri, Karin, and Frida’s blond hair all took on just the slightest tinge of blue from swimming.”
The depth of Lauren and Siri’s hunger for each other—for love, for friendship—is especially magnetic because it is a relationship that is not sexualized. Not only is this a refreshing departure from the bulk of professor-student interactions in literature, it speaks with powerful honesty about loneliness and connection. Lauren and Siri’s interactions are even partially framed in opposition to sexual attraction—Siri’s insistence that Lauren not get involved with her brother Magnus; Lauren’s fear when, on Öland, Siri accepts an invitation to go off with a strange man—and demonstrates an even more fraught intimacy: one that accepts and even enables their mutual web of partial truths. When it becomes clear that Lauren has told a fictionalized iteration of her parents’ deaths in a classroom exercise, Lauren says, of Siri, “She didn’t think it was peculiar that I had lied. She skipped right to understanding that—what? That there are sometimes reasons we don’t tell the whole truth.”
In the novel, the telling of a story becomes more important than the facts of it. When Siri talks about her brother’s art in contrast to her own, the way their visual remembrances of their mother have put them at odds, Siri says, “All I was doing there was trying to tell my own version of things, fix what he did.” In the story, there is power—beautifully true of the book itself—and the other stories inside the novel have power over the characters, particularly the mythological trappings of Sweden.
Siri, in an essay for class, writes about Odin’s ravens, Huginn and Muninn, the black birds of thought and memory, and it’s memory that pecks at Lauren, not only of her parents’ passing and all of her attendant failures thereafter, but the conclusion of the trip itself, its aftermath. Trauma’s wing conceals and reveals. Mythological beings like Näcken and Skogsrå—both dangerous figures luring the tempted lover to their doom in water or woods—provide evocative, terrifying anchor points and situate the work still more firmly in place while showing how readily, even greedily, Lauren absorbs what is given her. Zinna’s use of these details productively unsettles the narrative; the broken truths in the characters’ mouths are as unstable as the ground Siri’s brother Magnus literally breaks to bury his paintings. There is blurring between the monstrous and the metaphorical, the literal and the figurative, especially as the characters careen toward the climax on Öland. In a novel centered on connection and understanding, every character is, or becomes, someone else’s stranger, and the effect is mesmerizing.
Diane Zinna’s The All-Night Sun holds, at its heart, illumination: what is shown, what is held in the light, which is also to say that what is hidden, what is kept in shadow, is also necessarily part of its project. The All-Night Sun does not disappoint; the interplay between the secrets the characters keep and their moments of revelatory intimacy create a striking chiaroscuro effect that is as much about the power of storytelling—its power to deceive and transgress as much as to soothe and heal—as it is about what and how we grieve.