Fresh Meat: The Isle of Youth: Stories by Laura van den Berg

The Isle of Youth: Stories by Laura van den BergThe Isle of Youth: Stories by Laura van den Berg is a short fiction collection exploring the diverse lives of women with deep secrets (available November 5, 2013).

There are seven stories comprising Laura van den Berg’s new collection, Isle of Youth, and each is more fearsome than the last. Broken, struggling relationships between husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and parents and children form the backbone of each of these stories. Van den Berg creates immediacy in these relationships by setting her characters in untenable, violent situations. And every story is told in such beautiful language, you don’t quite realize your heart is breaking until it’s done.

The first story of Isle of Youth is of a young newlywed couple on their way to Patagonia. “I Looked for You, I Called Your Name” opens with a plane crash, and their reactions to this emergency reveal all is not right with the couple. The husband breaks the wife’s nose—by accident. The narrator questions her decision to marry her husband in the first place. She feels empty, desperate to fill herself with anything, to feel anything. 

I opened my mouth and started packing it with fistfuls of damp sand. The grains scratched the roof of my mouth and got wedged between my teeth. Grit ran down the back of my throat. My cheeks ballooned; sand stuck to my gums. It became difficult to breathe. I imagined my body filling up like an hourglass; I imagined my husband or the hotel manager or Christina Humbolt finding me on this rock the next morning, weighted down like a carnival dummy. I kept going until I could barely breathe, until I couldn’t close my mouth, until I was leaking sand. And then I coughed it all out, my shoulders heaving as wet clumps fell to the ground.

In “Opa-Locka” (which means “the high land north of the little river on which there is a camping place”) the private investigator sisters of Winslow & Co. investigate a potential affair, but are thwarted in their investigation, their personal lives, and surrounded by the threats inherent in a nasty neighborhood.

The third story, “Lessons,” is about another sibling pair, Dana and Pinky, who were raised in isolation on a farm. With their cousins, Cora and Jackie, they break out of their protected existence only to go on a cross-country crime spree.

There are four of them.

Dana, Jackie, Pinky, and Cora are cousins. Pinky is also Dana’s little brother. They call themselves the Gorillas because all gangs need a name – see Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, Stopwatch Gang, Winter Hill Gang – and also because they wear Gorilla masks during their holdups. They are criminals, but they still have rules: no hostages, small scores, never stay in one town for more than a week. It’s late summer and they’re roving through the Midwest, from motel to motel, making just enough to keep going. Dana watches the impossibly flat landscapes of Lafayette and Oneida pass through the car window and wonders how they all ended up here. Why didn’t they go to school and get regular jobs and get married and live in houses? The short answer: they are a group of people committed to making life as hard as possible.

“Acrobat” begins with a couple who come to Paris to revive their marriage—only the husband decides to call it quits on their final day in the City of Lights. In what can only be described as an ungentlemanly fashion, he informs her he’s cancelled her ticket and tells her she needs to find a separate way home.  With no hotel reservation, and only her passport, wallet, and guidebook in the satchel she carries, she follows a troupe of acrobats around the city. “By the time the acrobats left the Eiffel Tower, dusk was falling, and I had become less concerned with being cautious.” And caution disappears.

From Paris, van den Berg takes us to “Antartica” then to Hollywood, Florida in “The Greatest Escape.”  Both stories are about hidden truths coming to light. “Antartica” is a beautiful exploration of the consequences of keeping a secret too long. Lee’s brother has died in an explosion while researching a potential new fault line in Antartica. She heads down to the southernmost continent to discover what really happened to him, which means confronting truths she doesn’t want to confront. “The Greatest Escape” is also about confronting uncomfortable truths, only these truths are hidden behind the veil of magic. A magician and her daughter are trying to make ends meet in Hollywood, Florida, when the past comes back to haunt them.

The final, title story in the collection is “Isle of Youth.” Sylvia has been having an affair with a married man, and she’s been busted—the man’s wife has been following them. Wanting to have one last fling, Sylvia asks her twin sister—the narrator of the piece—to take over her life for a few days. Naturally, there’s some hesitation on the twin’s part.

If someone were to ask about my sister, I would say she was a dangerous person. The signs started showing in junior high, when she sent a neighborhood boy, who was in love with her, into a catastrophic depression by sleeping with him and then his best friend. At thirty-four, she had been through three fiancés, countless jobs and cities and hair colors. Bankruptcy. Names. Call me Lisa Anne, she said one time. Call me Suzette, she said another. It wasn’t just that my sister behaved badly – she was a shape-shifter, someone who bounced from one life to the next like a drug-resistant virus changing hosts. 

But Sylvia’s twin takes over for her, and finds out there’s more danger to her sister than she ever thought possible.

This collection of artful, beautiful stories is a wonderful reading experience. The stories move by in a kaleidoscope of emotion and imagery and danger. Filled with family and relationship struggles mixed with some extreme situations—affairs, disappearances, violence, death—these stories are quick to read, but stay with you a long time after you’ve finished.

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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.

Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.

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