The Sunlit Night

Living, loving, and painting amid a Norwegian oxymoron

The Sunlit Night

Photo: Jørn Allan Pedersen / Visit Norway
The Lofoten Islands in northern Norway are the land of the midnight sun.


JOHN SMISTAD
Olympia, Wash.

At a time of the year when days are short, many of us are dreaming of summer and light. Our thoughts may drift to Norway, where there is roughly a two-month stretch in late summer when the sun never fully sets on the Lofoten Islands in the north. To visitors, this can be most disorienting, as it was for Frances, the character brilliantly brought to life by Jenny Slate in the enchanting recently released dramedy The Sunlit Night (2020).

I was particularly drawn to this unusual tale of a New York painter (Slate) who accepts a job assisting an iconic but fading Norwegian artist attempting to resuscitate his career by painting a barn yellow. (I said it was unusual.) My dear dad is Norwegian-born and has been to the Lofotens many times.

The story is loosely based on the personal experiences of up-and-coming American author Rebecca Dinerstein. Fresh off graduating from Yale and with her life stuffed in one suitcase, she left for the Lofotens and to take up residence in an artist’s colony housed in a vacated insane asylum to write a poetry collection. Driven by a feeling that she needed to go as far north as possible, this remote Norwegian arctic archipelago provided the ideal destination. 

Rebecca Dinerstein

Living there for a year, Dinerstein spent that summer staying up until the wee hours of the morning, cavorting in the midnight sun, sleeping until generally early afternoon. Not committed to a rigid schedule, minimal structure was primarily limited to consuming three meals a day, including a typical Norwegian breakfast of brown cheese on a large hard cracker. She would begin writing, break for lunch, write some more, and then have an evening meal. Dinerstein has called her stay in Lofoten a formative time in her life. By choice, she did not have a lot of social interaction, which facilitated full devotion to concentrating on the striking natural surroundings along with her writing.

Her book of poems, Lofoten, written half in English, half in Norwegian, received favorable reception upon its 2012 publication. Separated into the light and the dark, the collection expresses falling in love with the landscape as well as self-discovery.

In the afternoons she wrote hundreds of pages of notes, which eventually became the first draft of The Sunlit Night. After three years spent in Norway, including two in Oslo, Dinerstein returned to New York and began shaping up her novel, which was published in 2015. She also composed the screenplay for the movie.

Growing up, Dinerstein thought her future would be performing on stage. However, three years in Norway changed her aspirations. She says the Arctic created “a stillness” within her, profoundly influencing her sensibility. Expressing thanks for this personal transformation, she feels that her soul has grown much calmer. 

Dinerstein confesses to missing the Arctic and the friendships she made there. Ideally, she’d like to spend half the year in Norway and half in the United States, as the former feels like home to her now. 

As Dinerstein’s protagonist, Frances journeys through an almost surreal Scandinavian Odyssey by the sea. Along the way she encounters a tourist village of modern-day Vikings (Zach Galifianakis is hilarious as a horde leader), a nude portrait model she recruits from a local grocery store, and a young guy/love interest in the throes of family turmoil. That’s a lot to process, no matter where you are. And it all manages to come together in a most delicious smorgasbord (I know, I know, that’s Swedish) of stunning scenery, simulated swordplay, and destiny discovered.

The only thing missing was the lutefisk. But then again, to most not indigenous to “The Land of The Midnight Sun,” that may be a good thing.

The film The Sunlit Night is available for viewing on Amazon Prime.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

John Smistad

John Smistad

John Smistad is a published author of short stories, poems, essays, and movie reviews. He lives and loves with his family and cat in the Puget Sound area of Washington State. He is the fiercely proud son of a native Norwegian dad. (He loves his mom, too.) You can follow him as on his blog at thequickflickcritic.blogspot.com.

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