Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg - book review: A dystopian novel with real character

A moving, and frequently funny, exploration of character and of trauma

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The Independent Culture

American Laura Van Den Berg's debut novel is a dystopian fiction, apparently, and dystopias, so far as the writer of fiction is concerned, are lands of milk and honey. I confess, though, to struggling with a genre that I've always felt errs more towards the thought experiment than the fully realised, or even artfully insinuated fictional world.

Van Den Berg's previous collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, won praise for the way in which characters' emotional lives overshadowed its ostentatious conceits (honeymooners crash-landed in Patagonia; twin sisters turned gum-shoe detectives). Find Me is similarly excellent because its narrator, Joy Jones, doesn't so much overshadow the dystopian genre in which she finds herself, as cannibalise it.

Present-day America is struck by an epidemic known as "the sickness". The most serious symptom is total loss of memory. Ironically named 19-year-old Joy has much she wants to forget – abandoned by her mother as a baby, she self medicates with cough syrup – yet remains immune, and is taken to a facility, the Hospital, where survivors are studied in the hope of finding a cure. Here, patients are assigned Floor Groups, and a mysterious "Pathologist" with shades of L. Ron Hubbard exhorts them over the tannoys – "YOU ARE WELL, YOU HAVE ALWAYS BEEN WELL, YOU WILL ALWAYS BE WELL."

Although Joy endures this with the genre's requisite drowsy blankness ("We walk by two women holding hands. They aren't from our Floor Group, I can't remember their names") she remains hearteningly indifferent to the unfolding catastrophe, skipping therapy, mooning over her room-mate, Louis, and cursing the on-site hairdresser for giving her bangs.

It's in the second half of the book, though – where Joy escapes the Hospital and sets out in search of her mother – that its quality becomes apparent. (Although the post-apocalyptic wasteland she moves through is a little teenage – a telepathic boy in a rabbit mask; a woman with angel wings.) Every character she meets has their own explanation for the epidemic, which, we realise, isn't intended as a social comment. To a certain extent, memories are the most personal things imaginable. The sickness encourages Joy to confront her own impulse to forget, and, in doing so, construct a version of herself she can live with.

In the end, Find Me is less a dystopia, than a moving, and frequently funny, exploration of character and of trauma.