December 2013

Naomi Huffman


The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg

The women in Laura van den Berg's sophomore story collection The Isle of Youth are indeed young, marooned in the midst of families, friendships and marriages, crippled by their own disillusionment, frantically flailing in the direction of what might be next, whatever that is. They say one thing and feel another, they lie, they steal, they run away. They are fledglings: trying to be gutsy, to be loud, to be understood, but they fall out of the sky.

It is not always fully explained why they are like this. Van den Berg relies heavily on reactions to the present conflict to build character, and requires the reader to participate in their unraveling. In the first story, "I Looked for You, I Called Your Name," a woman fills her mouth with sand nearly to the point of suffocation while on a late-night walk alone along the beach in northern Patagonia. She and her husband have just survived a minor plane crash on their honeymoon. It is evident from their interactions that the marriage may have been a mistake, something she agreed to more out of loneliness than love. There is a brief explication of the woman's dead twin, lost at just four weeks old, and her resulting lifelong failure at filling two lives. Like any strong storyteller -- both Carver and Hemingway come to mind --Van den Berg lays out the pieces of the past, leaving the reader to put them in place.

Writing disconnected characters is no easy feat -- how to explain the reaction of someone who appears to not actually be reacting? -- but van den Berg succeeds, deftly capturing the complexity and range of her characters' emotions. In "Acrobat," a woman's husband leaves her in Paris to "find our own way home" from a trip they'd originally embarked upon with the hope that it might save their marriage. She sits alone in the Jardin des Tuileries, watching a troupe of acrobats perform. She follows them as they move around the city and eventually joins the group. The masks, the make-up, and the performance are just the sort of distractions she seeks. They're the pretense she needs to hide behind.

Yet for all the painstaking care van den Berg takes to her female characters, she mostly ignores the men. They are violent, brutish, emotionally absent, actually absent. They are a cheating husband, a failed magician, a crazed researcher, an abusive father and with an exception or two, glaringly underdeveloped. If the female characters weren't so consumed with the ways in which their men have disappointed or destroyed them, or if only a few of the male characters were thusly treated, this might be pardonable. But too many of the men in these stories are so inadequately realized that they act as mere objects in the story, coat racks on which the women hang their blame and misery. Literature doesn't often make me want for more from the dominant male characters, but here, I do.   

Van den Berg's prose is spare, and beautifully so: Antarctica is a "desert;" the sun "is setting the sky on fire;" death, to one character, "is just like turning out the light." When a female bank teller is shot in "Lessons," there is blood but no gore -- she is "blinded at best." Though the stories often open opportunities for van den Berg to fall to poetic hyperbole (Paris, the Iguaz˙ Falls, Antarctica, and Patagonia are all settings in the stories that typically inspire such, and there are murders and a plane crashed and a drugged attempt at suicide), it's clearly not her style.

In van den Berg's debut story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, the women are in search of something to save them, often willing to believe in nonsense: Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, a tunnel that reaches the other side of the world. In The Isle of Youth, they're simply lost.

The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg
FSG Originals
ISBN: 978-0374177232
256 pages