The Isle of Youth
by Laura van den Berg
ISBN: 978-0-374-17723-2, 244 pp., $14.00 paperback
The stories in The Isle of Youth are beautiful and deceptively simple. Laura Van Den Berg's newest collection of stories hover around the same idea and express them elegantly and in unexpected directions. There's a sophistication in each story that belies the plain theme: what's missing? The delicate structure and form of each story, the wit and grace that moves through them, all revolve around that one question. What's missing?
What's missing in our lives? How do we go about finding that missing part of us? More importantly, do we always know what that missing part is? If we don't, how do we identify it? Do we rob banks like the gang in "Lessons" or do we open a detective agency, as the sisters in "Opa-Locka" do? Maybe we can explore an empty continent ("Antarctica") or perform in a mother-daughter magician act ("The Greatest Escape"). Or maybe we can just pretend to be someone else as a way of finding ourselves, like the narrator in the titular story. In The Isle of Youth, Laura Van Den Berg explores the missing pieces of life through a series of lost women trying to fill the hole in their souls.
There's a sameness in many of the protagonists in these stories. They're uniformly women, uniformly depressed, and almost entirely alone. The important men in their life, be they husbands—lots of husbands—brothers or fathers are all absent (if they are present in the flesh, their souls are DOA.) Sisters might be present, but they're just as damaged, if not more. Sometimes they have minor friends: a clerk they shoplift from, a target of grift who won't go away, an itinerant acrobat, a married woman they admire from afar, but for all intents and purposes, these women are alone and it's through their loneliness we try to understand them. Sometimes, we're all alone.
Sometimes we're alone on our honeymoon, as is the newlywed in "I Looked For You, I Called Your Name", or sometimes we're alone in Paris, like the newly separated wife in "Acrobat." In "The Isle of Youth," a woman having problems in her marriage impersonates her sister and in "Opa-Locka," the detective's husband is maybe sending cryptic postcards. If you can't rely on the one you married, who can be relied upon?
Not family, not really. The pack of cousins who rob banks in "Lessons" don't know what they're doing or where they're going; they just know what they're escaping from. The magician-mother in "The Greatest Escape" can barely be relied upon to finish her act, much less provide guidance. And no fathers or brothers in The Isle of Youth can be found; they're notable for their absence.
Where these stories happen seems incidental; the settings range from small towns in Florida to the barren continent of Antarctica to Patagonia to Paris. The small worlds of the narrators seem lost in the enormous places they roam. All the characters in Van Den Berg's stories want a better world and they explore their options, such as they are, in novel ways. Building robots, learning magic, trailing a mystery man, robbing banks, hanging with street performers… they're trying to live life when they don't know how to do it.
Van Den Berg seems to be saying that it's up to the reader to figure out how to replace what's missing, how to move on and grow up. Her protagonists are lost, but they're on the road to finding themselves. They're saying goodbye to the ghosts in their lives. The Isle of Youth might be a place, but it's more a stage in life. Becoming an adult means putting away childish things. Sometimes, it's the people in our lives who are the childish things. Other times, it's who we are at certain points in our life. In The Isle of Youth, the girls are in the process of putting themselves away and plugging up the missing spaces.—Michael Tager