The Isle of Youth, short stories by Laura van den Berg, reviewed by Erin McKnight


“It was a terrible flaw, our inability to see where our lives were leading us,” reflects one of Laura van den Berg’s characters before everything is terribly and irrevocably brought to bear. Indeed for the young women of this highly anticipated sophomore story collection who are living on the fringe, where mystery and intrigue are synonymous with deception and criminality, and getting ahead often means getting away, prudence is in short supply and the only way forward is by taking the treacherous trail of luck.

Winding from Patagonia to the Antarctic Peninsula, the route of this follow-up to the wildly successful debut, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, is just as exotic, its settings—a plane, mid-emergency landing; a day-long stakeout on a scorching rooftop; a backwater bar after a dismal magic show—just as inventive. Yet it is the characters of The Isle of Youth that feel most inexplicable: a honeymooning couple whose real intimacy occurs when the husband accidentally breaks his new wife’s nose; a woman left on the streets of Paris who ends up stalking an acrobatic troupe; an adolescent gang of related bank robbers traipsing through the Midwest; and a sister on a perilous journey to find her brother after his death, an accident that may in fact be contrived.

For the stories of the collection are unified through characterization: women who in some way commit a crime—their weapons ranging from revolvers to binoculars to self-delusion. Incapable of recognizing the boundary between honesty and deceit and kismet and misfortune, these wives, mothers, daughter, sisters, and cousins tramp one after another across storyscapes that will never appear to them as anything but remote; they may all attempt to toe the line, but these deficient women know what it means to “want something so badly” that they will chase, at the expense of their very selves, the lure of truth.

Yet despite the overarching attitude that “the truth [is] meant to be seen,” a sense of desperate wonder pervades the collection, for the honesty revealed is often murkier than the depths from which it is dislodged. On their precarious paths van den Berg’s characters unearth and handle the evidence of wrongdoing, but never quite manage to extend their examination inward in any meaningful way, making for an electric unassailability of behavior and motivation. So when the bride happens upon photos of an Amazonian initiation ceremony and recognizes that the boys aren’t “their real selves anymore, that the self [has] been forsaken in order to be part of something larger,” the reader shouldn’t be surprised by her inability to move beyond mere consideration of what is lost, what is left, when veracity is pursued.

Indeed, occupying a place on the map between what was taken and what remains, and factoring strongly into each of the seven stories, is identity: at once inherently compromised and overwhelmingly inviolate. So much so that physical concealment is necessary as characters grapple with their shadow selves; wedding veils, bank robbers’ gorilla masks, an acrobat’s face paint, a balaclava for sub-freezing temperatures, and the made-up face of an identical sister all speak to an inherent sense of doubt, a need for protection from the “feeling of always being half-present and half-absent.”

So, these women go in search of what was lost and thereby attempt to determine the exact capacity of what remains. And sometimes revelation does come, in the form of a body requiring identification or a charred explosion site; other times there is only the pursuit—PIs tracking an adulterer, a former victim hunting her kidnapper, hired muscle sent to make good on a debt, or daughters of a conman trying to fit together a postcard puzzle set. But more often than not there are no answers, for one first needs to “know the right questions to ask.”

Widening the space between fact and the shape-shifting nature of truth when permitted to languish in the stories we tell ourselves is illusion, a willing accomplice. After all, “Deception is necessary. . . . Otherwise the world will just sandblast us away. You have to keep something for yourself.” Because despite these characters’ apparent commitment to “making life as hard as possible” by doing what is necessary, their true crime is believing that they are ever capable of legitimacy.

Therefore much of the time these women are “looking for something to take a chance on,” and rely on some good fortune to carry them the rest of the way. But luck requires complicity and van den Berg’s women, on the run—from distanced men or the law—remain weighted down by their own mistakes. Looking to locate “a place on the right side of luck,” the isle does indeed materialize in the final, title story, but the appearance, the existence, the effect of this “sacred place” on characters desperate for its discovery is ruthless in its exposé of self-deception and the ends to which people will go to reconcile their circumstances.

In the opening story, “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name,” the newlyweds make the recommended trip to Iguazú Falls where the guide pronounces, much to the bride’s dismay, that the first falls they see, the first of hundreds, is the “best one.” This sense of disappointment may well resonate with van den Berg’s reader, who could struggle to imagine that the stories which follow will attain the splendor of the first—water that crashes yet sings, a landscape lush in its formidability—but this writer is every bit as talented as she’s professed to be, for although The Isle of Youth is expectedly marvelous, each story is its own “very best.”

The Isle of Youth, by Laura van den Berg. New York, New York: FSG Originals. 256 pages. $10.99, paper.

Erin McKnight is the publisher of Queen’s Ferry Press, an independent press publishing collections of literary fiction. Erin’s own writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and W. W. Norton’s The Best Creative Nonfiction. Erin lives in Dallas with her husband and young daughter.

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