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Youthful Angst Is Fresh And Compelling In 'Last Night In Nuuk'

There's a lot to recommend life in a large town or small city, but there's no doubt it can get claustrophobic — familiar faces can get too familiar, and it's hard to blend into the crowd when everyone in the crowd knows who you are.

Such is the case with the five main characters in Last Night in Nuuk, Greenland author Niviaq Korneliussen's startling and beautiful novel, set in her country's capital city. ("City" is generous; it boasts a population of just under 18,000, making it smaller than towns like Milwaukie, Ore., and Pittsburg, Kan.) The book is a heartbreaking yet hopeful look at what it's like to be young and queer in one of the most isolated places in the world.

Each of the five characters in Korneliussen's novel gets their own chapter, with young Fia up first. She's in a doomed relationship with a man named Peter; he's in love with her, but she's growing restless: "False smiles turning uglier. Dry kisses stiffening like desiccated fish. Bad sex should be avoided at all costs. My faked orgasms get harder to believe as time goes by. ... The days become darker. The void in me expands." After an awkward encounter at a college party, she decides to make a change.

Fia's brother Inuk, a journalist who's been seeing a married male politician, is also forced to confront change, though not one he's asked for. When his best friend, Arnaq, betrays his secret and tells others of the relationship, he's infuriated, and descends into a darkness from which he has trouble escaping.

Inuk's friend Arnaq, a hard-partying bisexual woman, seems incapable of making a good decision. She's crushed when Inuk renounces their friendship, but refuses to blame herself or her constant drinking for her missteps, complaining, "It's not my fault. It's my upbringing. I didn't do anything bad. I didn't do anything evil. My dad is the evil one. I don't abuse. I'm the victim here. And what about my mother? She never protected me. She didn't care. I was neglected and abused: that's what's wrong with everything."

The last two chapters deal with a couple, Ivik and Sara, who split after Ivik stops being able to have sex with her partner, and later cheats on her with Arnaq. The breakup leads Ivik to a startling revelation about herself, but plunges Sara into a near-suicidal depression. Sara's chapter ends perfectly, with a single hashtagged phrase that's simple, but just right.

Youthful angst is well-worn territory, of course, but nothing about Last Night in Nuuk is trite or overfamiliar. Each character is drawn carefully and with compassion, but Korneliussen refuses to make any of them either flawless angels or irredeemable jerks. They're all painfully human, fumbling through their youth and sexualities, all in vastly different ways. And crucially, they all have voices of their own — sometimes authors struggle with their characters all sounding the same; that's definitely not a problem here.

Youthful angst is well-worn territory, of course, but nothing about 'Last Night in Nuuk' is trite or overfamiliar.

It's also a beautifully structured book. Korneliussen uses a variety of narrative techniques: She tells Inuk's chapter through journal entries and letters, while text messages play a large role in the final three sections. In some books, this can come off as a gimmicky way to telegraph the characters' youth, but Korneliussen doesn't overplay her techniques; the varying communications all seem natural and appropriate, and never distract from the story.

Writing about characters dealing with depression or undergoing major life changes can be tricky for authors; it requires sensitivity and an unflinching dedication to depicting both despair and hope. Korneliussen has both, and her novel is so much better for it — she doesn't shy away from the dark, but she's also not afraid to let her characters, at times, experience joy. This is a novel that deals with serious pain, but it never becomes the kind of overwrought emotional torture porn that books about troubled youth sometimes descend into.

Young people often aren't the best at writing about youth, but Korneliussen, who is not yet 30, knocks it out of the park. Last Night in Nuuk is a stunning book, at once audacious and honest, sorrowful and triumphant, and Korneliussen seems certain to have a remarkable career ahead of her.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.