The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg, book review: Running on empty

Van den Berg’s characters are weighed down by secrets, or hollowed out by absences

Released to acclaim in the US in 2013, Laura van den Berg’s collection of seven short stories deservedly finds a British publisher in Daunt Books.

“I thought about the grief of wanting to know what was not knowable,” says a mourning sister in “ Antarctica” – but this could be an epithet for all the stories. Van den Berg’s characters are weighed down by secrets, or hollowed out by absences. We feel the burdens that characters have been carrying, or are trying to throw off; their inner emptiness, and their attempts to fill it. “I tried to shake the feeling that I was living someone else’s life,” says one. “For as long as I could remember, I’d felt an emptiness where other things were supposed to be,” says another.

The Isle of Youth is peopled by liars, tricksters, thieves, even if they’re mostly conning themselves; it groans with absent husbands, vanishing fathers, deceased siblings. All seven stories are written about young-ish American women, and all but one are first-person.

Several also refer to absent other halves as “my husband” rather than by name. Van den Berg doesn’t appear to have much faith in marriage, given that we have a story about a disastrous honeymoon where “my husband” breaks the protagonist’s nose during a plane crash; another where a wife misses “my husband” breaking up with her because she was distracted watching synchronised backflips, and a final “my husband” who may be having an affair with the narrator’s twin sister.

But, as those examples show, Van den Berg has a lot of fun with outlandish settings, details, or narrative cogs. There’s almost a gung-ho genre thrust to many of them: these women are private detectives, crooked stage magicians, and bank-robbing girl gangs. Yet Van den Berg applies an acidic comedy in stripping these of genre conventions and plonking them into the banal real world.

She also frequently pulls off the reverse trick – finding moments of revelation, of magic, in the everyday. And it’s surely no coincidence that several stories take place far from home – in Antarctica, Paris, Patagonia, hurricane-hit Florida – a change of surroundings leading to a change of perspective.

Just occasionally, Van den Berg gives her characters too much hindsight, tipping into self-help-ish profundity. But largely this is a carefully crafted collection. Tonally, she effectively mixes a deadpan, droll observational humour with a real sense of the wounded, but still beating, heart inside each of her seven women. They make for fun, and troubling, company.

Daunt Books £9.99

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