During the summer in southern Sweden, the sky never goes fully black at night; it only dims to a twilight glow for a few hours. The sun does dip below the horizon, unlike in the north and above the Arctic Circle, where it shines in the sky for 24 hours a day. The light contributes to a general sense of otherworldliness, creating a place without night, where nothing can remain fully hidden in the dark—if only for a few months. Ari Aster’s hit film Midsommar capitalized on this otherworldliness, incorporating Swedish folk customs, language, and geography into its psychological horror. Diane Zinna’s new novel The All-Night Sun, dreamed up nearly a decade before Aster’s film and released July 14, tells a similar story: A lost young woman goes on a trip to a friend’s hometown in Sweden to find herself in the wake of her parents’ tragic deaths; she takes hallucinogenic drugs on the night of the summer solstice and chaos ensues. But here, the surrealism—and the horror—comes from the way grief warps the passage of time and one’s sense of self.
Before she goes to Sweden, Lauren Cress is a 28-year-old adjunct professor at a fictional Catholic college outside D.C., teaching international students English composition. In that class, she meets 18-year-old Siri Bergström, who quickly becomes more than her student. Like Lauren, Siri lost both her parents, and she senses “in Siri’s gaze that she knew the parts I’d left unsaid.” There’s much inside Lauren that is unsaid. Since her parents died in an accident when she was 18, she’s been more of a shell than a fully realized person, floating through life without purpose or real connection beyond the men she sometimes brings home to feel something. Siri ignites a passion inside Lauren that looks, and acts, much like romance. Soon they spend all their time together, on campus and in Lauren’s apartment. When the semester’s nearly over and Siri invites Lauren to come to her home over the summer, she jumps at the chance, her career an afterthought.
So far, Lauren has only seen Siri in love-bomb mode, all sweetness and light, but in her hometown she shows a more petulant, cruel, and capricious side to friends and family who are already under her spell. At times, Siri is downright childish, which seems to shock Lauren, but she is, after all, a child. Soon, Lauren experiences that cruelty for herself, and what happens on that brief trip changes her forever. Although only about half the novel is set there, Sweden is a far more vividly imagined setting than any American place, including the book’s hazy and imprecise Long Island and D.C. locales. Its geography is specific and accurate, perhaps reflecting how Lauren is more alive there than she ever was at home.
Like many works of fiction that deal with—in a phrase—complicated female friendships, The All-Night Sun depends heavily on tropes of sexual and romantic obsession, but the novel and its narrator coyly refuse to plumb those depths. If Zinna is aware of the resonance, Lauren seems not to be. She at least knows that her attraction to Siri crosses teacher-student boundaries; she encourages Siri and her family not to tell anyone at the college about her trip and she fully unravels when, after tragedy, her colleagues find out she went. When one mentions “inappropriate behavior,” Lauren wonders if Siri’s friend said she’d “harassed” her student, although no one else has used the word harassment. Later, while staring at a painting by Siri’s older brother Magnus where Lauren and Siri are naked, she’s all too aware of “the incrimination of their nudity.” When Lauren has sex with Magnus, both she and Siri understand that it is a betrayal of their relationship. But Siri is always “a friend,” until she becomes another ghost haunting Lauren.
Lauren is hard for a reader to hold on to, even with all her rough edges, but that’s because there’s very little keeping her together. It can be frustrating at times, but the wandering narration and her increasingly foggy mental state feel true to the mind-numbing, almost supernatural effects of grief—it sends her time traveling into the past, conjures up ghosts, and creates alternate universes. Only by confronting it can she break its spell and consider the kind of person she can be going forward, or consider that she has a future at all. Ultimately, what’s illuminated by the summer sun and Santa Lucia’s candles in The All-Night Sun is the thorny, surreal nature of grief, both new and old, and the twisting path forward after loss.