The Short Version: Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, mokele-mbembe – these creatures (rumored or real) are nothing quite so strange or mysterious as the women who also inhabit these stories, in this first collection from an already-inimitable writer.
The Review: Sometimes, it can be kind of fun to encounter a young writer out-of-order. Laura van den Berg’s The Isle of Youth is where I began, and with that collection she won me as a reader for life. Her debut novel, Find Me, was a captivating expansion of her abilities. So, while we all wait for her next novel, it seemed the only thing to do was seek out her first collection, which is not the easiest to find. But Dani brought a copy back from California and, after devouring it herself, pressed it upon me.
And I’m so amazed by how fully-formed Laura’s writing is, from moment one. Sure, these stories are a little rougher, a little less polished, than the stories in The Isle of Youth – but of course they are. This collection came first. The really impressive thing is that each and every one of these stories feels like a Laura van den Berg story, even the ones that are outshone by others. I can’t think of another young writer whose work is so distinct from the very first collection, whose voice is so immediately identifiable. Sure, there are authors whose stories or novels all feel like they’re written by Author X – but you see their inspirations or you see them trying on new modes, trying to experiment with what I guess you could call a costume. Whereas Laura, even when she is trying new things or working in a different mode… she still sounds like Laura van den Berg. I’m struggling to articulate it, because it’s such a simple idea… but deceptively so, because it is so rare.
As with her other writings, the main characters here are women inhabiting a world perhaps just next door to ours. The main character of the first story (“Where We Must Be”), for example, is a failed actress who gets a job at a Bigfoot park – where people pay to come be scared/chased/hunted by Bigfoot. The young woman at the heart of the title story has a lemur-focused biologist for a mom and who wants to be a long-distance, open-water swimmer. Even the professor having an affair with one of her students or the woman adrift in New York after the end of an affair with her boss – even they feel like characters just outside of our world. They are all interesting people, all of them with distinct dreams and aspirations (even when those dreams/aspirations seem to be occluded) and they all feel like people you could, but don’t, know. I guess that last part is what I mean when I say “the world just next to ours.”
The best stories here are the ones that slip in unassuming, the ones that just start and you feel like you’ve been there the whole time. “Where We Must Be”, “We Are Calling to Offer You a Fabulous Life”, the title story… they take up much more space than their page counts would imply, because they are so full and rich. Even when the stories don’t have that much to say or do, focusing on a tiny moment or two, they have this larger psychic impact that lingers. It is an impressive trick for even an established writer and, while I’ve known that she could do it because of the aforementioned reading order, it is all the more impressive to see it from the very start. It’s really fun, too, to see her trying out things that she’ll come back to later on. The main character of “Goodbye My Loveds” reminded me, for some reason, of Joy from Find Me – even though they’re quite different, they seemed like kindred spirits. So too the world-hopping quality of the title story reminded me of her Best American Short Stories 2014-included “Antarctica”. Those stories are not rewrites or better versions of these stories; instead, they are just the next step along.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. van den Berg’s stories stick around, wispy and beautiful, long after you’ve turned the page or closed the book. This isn’t as a strong of a collection as her more recent one, but it’s still necessary reading if you like her writing – and I do. I really, really do. It’s incredible to see an author whose voice is so clear from day one and I, for one, absolutely adore that voice. Laura is writing unlike anybody else out there today and I look forward to reading whatever comes next (and after that, and after that, and so on) – because she only keeps getting better.