A Northern Light in Provence

A Novel

About the Book

A woman leaves her coastal Greenland village to translate the works of a renowned Provençal poet and finds her life irrevocably changed, in this tender and romantic novel set in a French village.

“A charming and beautifully written novel about self-discovery, the power of language, and yes, love!”—Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants

Ilse Erlund is a translator who lives in a house on stilts along the west coast of Greenland. Isolated and restless in her world by the sea, she convinces her publisher to pay for a trip to the country she has never visited but whose language she speaks fluently: France. Her mission is to translate the verses of Geoffrey “Po” Labaye, a charismatic poet known as “the last living troubadour of Provence.”

Upon arrival in the medieval hilltop village of Belle Rivière, Ilse falls under the spell of the Provençal way of life, captivated by the air, the sun, the vibrant spring colors, and the dulcet sounds of the dialect. Soon enough, Ilse is captivated by the poet, too, and she and Po develop a daily rhythm and warm camaraderie—which is disrupted by the arrival of the poet’s son, Frey. Though he has a fiancée back in Paris, Frey turns his attentions to Ilse, and suddenly she is forced to learn another language, one her translation skills have not prepared her to decode. Where—and with whom—does her future lie?

With an eye and ear attuned to the sensibilities of French life, Elizabeth Birkelund has created a love story about a woman forced to choose between the security of her quiet northern home and the possibility of the life of her dreams.
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Praise for A Northern Light in Provence

“When 35-year-old Ilse Erlund is transported from her home in coastal Greenland to a medieval hilltop village in Provence to translate the work of an esteemed poet, she discovers that true understanding requires moving beyond words, into empathy’s more uncertain terrain. Big-hearted, whimsical, and enchanting, A Northern Light in Provence is more than a delightful escape; it’s an invitation to explore the potential of human connection.”—#1 New York Times bestselling novelist Christina Baker Kline, author of The Exiles

“A gorgeous ice-and-fire romance that will plunge you into both the infinite tundra of Greenland and the color-soaked mountains of Provence . . . an immersive, sensual read that demands a hammock, bare feet, and a well-iced bottle of rosé.”—Helen Simonson, author of The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club

“A charming and beautifully written novel about self-discovery, the power of language and yes, love! All of which left me yearning for my own Provençal adventure. Elizabeth Birkelund reminds us that sometimes we must step out of our comfort zones to pursue our dreams.”—Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants and At the Water’s Edge

“Birkelund’s lyrical language transported me to sunny Provence, where I imagined myself sitting amidst a vineyard, wine glass in hand, and to the icy waters of Greenland, where I found myself reaching for a warm wool blanket. The developing bond between the troubadour poet and his French translator moved me deeply.”—Alka Joshi, author of The Jaipur Trilogy

“This sweeping, gorgeous novel is more than just a love story—it’s a life-affirming tale about finding who and where you’re meant to be. Birkeland has the uncanny ability to transport you with her prose to both the charming (and cold!) Greenlandic village and then the warm, idyllic French countryside, but her real gift lies in laying bare the truth of the human heart. I loved it.”—Colleen Oakley, author of The Mostly True Story of Tanner & Louise

“With its heart-stopping lyricism and immersive story, this intensely moving, vivid, and evocative novel stayed with me long after I finished it. The questions it poses about life, and love, continue to haunt me.”—Lauren Belfer, author of Ashton Hall

“I was deeply moved by this tender and wise novel about a translator discovering the poetry of daily life—and her own heart—in two of the most beautiful places on earth. Birkelund has crafted an unforgettable story about love, literature, and the difficulties in separating our dreams from our illusions. . . . As surprising as it is delightful.”—Will Schwalbe, New York Times bestselling author of The End of Your Life Book Club

“Birkelund sets her enchanting tale of love and loss in exotic Greenland and sun-dappled Provence. . . . [She] constructs a rich world replete with real emotional stakes and lovely insights on how translation relates to life. . . . This sumptuous tale deserves a wide audience.”Publishers Weekly
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A Northern Light in Provence

Chapter 1

From the window of the top floor of the old sea captain’s house, Ilse Erlund gazes at the flat sword of sky and the steely sea, dotted with icebergs. She looks through the binoculars hanging on a shoestring around her neck. A glowing blue ice sculpture tips, rotates, and drifts past. With its trail of mist, the form resembles a skeletal ghoul, indifferent to all but its cavernous-­eyed pursuit of the sea, the sea, the sea—­and freedom from its ice-­bound form.

It’s midmorning and high tide. In a few moments, the prone silt and rock craggy headland, on which Ilse’s sea captain cottage rests, will liquefy into silver froth. Ilse is concerned about the stability of the four stilts that support the house, especially after the lightning storm last night when she’d spent much of the flashing, wind-­howling hours tossing with fear that the cottage, and her in it, would fall into the sea. Even on sunny days, the house and her clothes smell of mildew.

Malu, Ilse’s mother, says it’s Ilse’s imagination, that houses don’t wobble back and forth. Of all people, Malu, who has the most Inuit blood in the family, should trust her daughter’s perceptions. In the Inuit culture, all things, living and inanimate, have souls, wobbly houses included. But Malu is a practical practitioner of life.

Jann, you would believe me! Jann, Ilse’s brother, born just eleven months before she was, her almost-­twin, the youngest and best soccer player in Greenland. He’d been awarded MVP every year since he’d been drafted at seventeen years old by the Polar Teddy Bears, Greenland’s national team.

This next iceberg looks like an escapee, its arms extended behind, as it slips between sheets of black ice and snow-­covered floes. Fleeing from what? Ilse removes the binoculars from her neck. She could play the “What does the iceberg resemble?” game all day. Back to work—­or rather, back to her everyday affordable getaway, peering into the narrow interstices, no, not between icebergs, but between words and punctuation marks to decipher other worlds, other people, other ways of life.

Ilse Erlund is a Greenlander who translates French texts into Danish or English, or both.

“Don’t ask why,” she tells her fellow Greenlanders after informing them about her profession. A look of confusion, followed by the word “French?” is a fair response. The more typical reaction is a few noncommittal words or a giggle. The relatives on Ilse’s mother’s side of the family are more opinionated. Those are the ones who regaled the young Ilse with Inuit myths and now consider her a traitor. Great-­Aunt Jôrîna even warned Ilse that by gazing too eagerly at another culture she was risking the wrath of the Moon Man. Ilse suspects that her parents worry that she’ll hightail it out of town as soon as she has enough money to travel—­and they’re right. Her parents are from the generation that still considers exiting a settlement taboo: if one person leaves, the community is weakened.

Can Ilse help it if she has a natural ear for languages? She’d learned English, thanks to her mother who spoke it to her at home—­Malu’s grandfather was a cartographer from Liverpool who charted North Greenland, previously terra incognita, and then stayed and married an indigenous Greenlander. Thanks to Malu’s fluency in English, she was awarded one of the most prestigious jobs in Greenland, that of a well-­paid postal worker.

Danish is Ilse’s father tongue, also spoken at school when she was growing up. Most Greenlanders speak it. Fa’s (Far is “father” in Danish) family immigrated to southwestern Greenland from Denmark in the early 1900s to set up logging posts—­that’s when there were still forests on that part of the island. Since then, Fa’s family has married into Greenlandic families, so Ilse also speaks the local kalaallisut, which became the official language in 2009.

But being trilingual wasn’t enough for the then twelve-­year-­old. That was Ilse’s age when a certain perfume-­wearing, high-­heel-­boot-­sashaying Madame LaRoche arrived to teach French in Ilse’s school.

Love at first hearing.

This morning, Ilse Erlund is struggling with her first love. Despite her preternatural ability to translate words from one language into another, the French expression faire la grasse matinée is not coming easily. The phrase appears often enough in the novel by Zoë Gaudet that Ilse is convinced the French author thinks the words constitute the purpose of life.

“To make a fat morning” is the literal translation. In the context of Gaudet’s novel about a philandering woman who swings from lover to lover like a monkey from tree to tree, the expression has suggestive implications.

“Enjoy a lazy, postcoital morning” is hardly sexy, Ilse says to herself. The Anglo-­Saxon language is many things, but a romance language it is not. For a richer verbal transmigration, English would have to languish topless on the pebbled beaches on the Mediterranean coast, or step among sunflowers in the dusty fields of Provence, or at the very least bite into a tranche of crusty French bread. And that would be only the beginning.

Ilse suspects, after fifteen years in the translating business, that faire la grasse matinée, like so many other French expressions, is culturally impossible to unlock in its original, delicious sense.

Ilse’s best-­kept secret to those in her business, shhh, don’t tell her French publisher, is that she has never stepped foot in France! You try paying for the extortionate round-­trip airfare from Greenland to Iceland to France, she often rationalizes, and then the lodging, food, and drink, with the paltry salary of a translator.

Her friend Troy Belke, otherwise known since middle school as Beluga (kids can be so cruel), tells her that money is a poor excuse, that travel is cheaper than ever these days, and the reason she’s never crossed the seas is that she’s afraid.

Afraid of what? Finding out that she’s an imposter, that she has no more right to be translating this love language than converting a Greenland sled dog’s bark into words? That she has miles and years to go before she can even begin to understand the French culture, and that one day she’ll be found out and be forced to quit this work that sends her imagination soaring, and resign herself to working as a tour guide out on the Tasermiut Fjord, explaining glacier melts to ice-cream-­faced kids?

It is a shameful truth that at thirty-­five years old, Ilse has never left Greenland. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love living on the largest island in the world and one of the least populated. Where else could she witness the dazzling dance of northern lights on the darkest nights of winter and find herself awestruck over and over again by the telltale spouting of a humpback whale and its dramatic flip of tail as it dives into the deep? Even as an adult, she loves to clamber over the coastal mussel-­strewn boulders and rocks—­geologists say they’re 3.9 billion years old—­and trek up ice-­capped mountains for panoramic views in every direction. She still weeps at the beauty of the spread of purple Arctic flowers and white Boreal cup lichen that carpet the terrain in early summer.

Landscape? Seascape or skyscape perhaps. Icescape would be the more apt word. Eighty-­two percent of her country is covered with a silky frozen cape, in some areas in the middle four miles thick. But now the garment is shrinking. Hourly, the ice is calving, breaking off into ice-­filigreed cathedrals and frozen sea creatures, many of which she sees from her window. Even the ice tongues, the floating platforms of ice attached to glaciers, are thinning. No wonder the earth’s sea level is rising every year. She’d recently read a statistic that the island is losing 277 gigatons of mass a year, and when she looked up “gigaton,” she found out it equals one billion tons!

Many Greenlanders who’d traveled, like Beluga, returned to this self-­governing province of Denmark, boasting that nowhere else on earth can you feel so close to nature, nowhere else does every view offer a glimpse of infinity. After one extensive leave-­taking, Beluga had even waxed poetic, unusual for him, and that’s why Ilse remembers it so well: he’d said that only in Greenland on a moonless winter’s night could the sky hold a billion trillion sparkling diamonds, and on a summer’s midnight could it shine like pearls turned into iridescent powder. Others, when they were away, complained of the “Polar Spell,” an unclassified anxiety that dissipated only when they returned to the treeless icy expanses and lichen-slick cliffs descending into fjords.

About the Author

Elizabeth Birkelund
Elizabeth Birkelund is the author of two previous novels, The Runaway Wife and The Dressmaker. She started her career in the editorial department of European Travel and Life magazine, then turned to freelance writing as a monthly personal finance columnist for Cosmopolitan. She has written for numerous national publications, including Glamour, Self, Working Woman, and Victoria. You may follow her work and travels on Instagram and Facebook. More by Elizabeth Birkelund
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