The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg, book review: Unlikely heroines make their mark in these short shockers

Van den Berg’s great talent is taking quite outlandish situations and boiling them down to a universal emotional essence

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The Independent Culture

This short story collection by a captivating new voice in American fiction brims with memorable heroines. In “The Greatest Escape”, the narrator is a magician’s assistant; in “Opa-Locka” we follow a pair of sisters-turned-gumshoes; in “Lessons”, it’s a troupe of juvenile bank robbers. Van den Berg’s settings are no less exotic: Patagonia, Paris, Antarctica, Cuba and Florida all pop up in vivid, dreamy succession. Any one of the tales would make a super indie short film for a budding Sofia Coppola.

If that all sounds rather fanciful, then Van den Berg’s great talent is taking quite outlandish situations – a sister visits the site of an explosion in Antarctica to collect her dead brother’s belongings, or a heartbroken woman parties with a troupe of French acrobats on the day her marriage falls apart – and boiling them down to a universal emotional essence.

Her style is spare, almost brutally so, with a flair for an intriguing opening line. “The first thing that went wrong was the emergency landing.” “I arrived at my sister’s apartment just before the hurricane.” Salon called Van den Berg the best young writer in America today. This, her second collection, arrives here with cover quotes from Dave Eggers – who compares her to Lorrie Moore – and Ann Patchett.

In all seven stories, the protagonists are female. But these are anti-heroines –stuck in loveless marriages or hopeless careers, they operate on the margins of society. They lie and steal, keep secrets and fantasise.

The men are even worse. They loom large by their absence mainly – as runaway fathers, missing husbands, dead brothers. In “I Looked for You, I Called Your Name”, a chillingly matter-of-fact account of a disastrous honeymoon, the newly-married couple are in a crash landing in Patagonia, during which the husband elbows his wife – deliberately, who can tell? – in the face.

“I unbuckled my seatbelt and cupped my nose, stunned silent by the pain. ‘The seatbelt sign is still on,’ my husband said, resting a hand on my back. I leaned forward, away from his touch.”

That unsettling little incident is on the opening page.By the time the honeymooners’ hotel catches fire, 20 pages later, the feeling of doom is overwhelming. From this first story to the last – “The Isle of Youth” in which a twin finds herself living her sister’s life, with unexpectedly violent consequences – this is an unusually compelling collection. Van den Berg’s first novel, Find Me, is published later this year. On this evidence, it is one to watch out for.

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