By Cole Bubenik
“The first thing that went wrong was the emergency landing,” this is the opening line to Laura Van Den Berg’s collection of short stories The Isle of Youth, a hodgepodge of things gone wrong and safety mechanisms failing to deploy. Van Den Berg’s collection was released in 2013, and I’ve been searching for it ever since. It’s one of those collections that I heard about online, looked at the cover and imagined to myself that it must be lovely and full of something special, but never sought it out. I have that habit: wanting books but never looking for them—waiting for them to just appear in my life, for things to align. However, it was worth the wait.
Van de Berg’s short stories are dazzling and mystical as they unfold. Nestled in each story is a quiet form of personal introspection and intimacy which is often juxtaposed next to the absurd, tragic, or simply the extreme. French acrobats, mother and daughter magicians, sister private eyes, and research stations centered in Antarctica all collide in The Isle of Youth’s. A fantastic book of short stories coming in at around 240 pages, The Isle of Youth is short, fast paced, and a perfect read for short story lovers of all types.
In the first story, “I Looked for you, I Called your Name,” Van Den Berg tells a story of a husband and a wife, who following a plane crash on their way to a second honeymoon, come to terms with their own domestic squabbles. As the story progresses the husband and wife become less of a pairing as the wife splits off and examines the distance generated between the two of them. That is to say, there is domestic strife unfolding within Van Den Berg’s short stories but, mostly, there is distance. Van Den Berg’s short stories seem to be grappling with the distance between bodies and relationships: how much is too much, how much is just enough, where do past and present collide, and should they even?
In “Opa-Locka” sister detectives spy on another woman’s husband, attempting to determine whether or not he is actually committing adultery. The story centers around these two women, jumping from past to present, as Van Den Berg searches through their rich histories and seeks to find the points where their two selves connect and disconnect. What features so prominently in Van Den Berg’s collection is the interpersonal, romantic and social, connection between her women characters. In “Opa-Locka” the sisters are tied together by the disturbing fact that, years ago, when they were still young, their father left them and never returned. Tucked down deep inside them is a longing to solve this mystery, to use the present as a means of uncovering the past confusion—clarifying and simplifying everything. This doesn’t go as planned, but still resolutions are made, distances are traversed, and emotions are expounded upon.
This theme of going to the present to uncover the past becomes the central theme of Van Den Berg’s fifth short story, “Antarctica.” In Antarctica, a woman travels to Antarctica to uncover the mystery of her brother’s sudden death only to be confronted with the harsh reality that “In Antarctica, there was nothing to identify because there was nothing left.” While in part Van Den Berg’s stories center around the search for a past, made mythical by sudden circumstance and impossible tragedy, the search for intimacy becomes the true narrative throughout The Isle of Youth. In “Antarctica,” the main character is searching for more than just her brother’s remains. Rather, the narrative centers around the main narrator’s search for the remnants of her former self, and the messy division between the present and the nostalgic past. The main narrator remembers times spent with her brother when they “did not rely on language” but laments how they “never really learned how to talk to each other.”
Loneliness, isolation, and the longing for a grander form of intimacy are all woven in throughout The Isle of Youth. Van Den Berg’s characters, while strong and stoic, feel slightly damaged and fragile throughout the pages. In her title story “The Isle of Youth” the main character goes to Florida to take over her identical twin sister, Sylvia’s, life. Sylvia disappears to the mysterious Isle of Youth and leaves her twin sister to take her place. The story radiates transformation: the one body made into the literal other, the two bodies sharing a common thread, and the final, perhaps hopeless transformation at the end. Van Den Berg’s short stories tackle too much to distill them into a simplistic definition of “a story on love” or “a story on longing.” At the heart of all of it, Van Den Berg’s stories are stories about humanity, and all the messiness that comes with it. A beautiful thematic currant, humorous sets of circumstances, and a lovely writing style make this a collection of short stories that is well worth the read and an absolutely unforgettable journey into the inner psyches of women in the midst of the sudden tragedy of living.