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Review: The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg

These characters are sad women, lonely in varying degrees of life: in “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name”, a mis-aligned couple on their honey moon become more and more estranged with one another after their plane makes an emergency landing, and the protagonist meets an enigmatic woman who takes secret swims in the ocean every night. “OPA-LOCKA” details the lives of two private-eye detective sisters, while “Lessons” is focused on a gang of cousins who decide that a life in crime is better than their bleak, rural lives at home. “Acrobat” begins the day when the protagonist’s husband leaves her in Paris, after deciding that their marriage is through. The woman becomes entranced by a group of acrobats and tails them throughout the city, until they finally take notice and invite her to a party that is strange and wonderful. “Antarctica” is centered around a pair of close siblings, the brother’s elegant wife, and her secretive past. In “The Great Escape”, truly the most magical story out of the seven, a girl, trained as her low-grade magician mother’s assistant, struggles with an eclipsed future, a web of lies about the father she thought she knew, and magic—in all of its extraordinary complexities and meanings. Finally, in the title story, “The Isle of Youth”, our protagonist believes she is switching lives with her troubled sister in order to allow her a secret tryst with her former lover. However, the outcome is far less cut-and-paste. 

Sometimes you come across a short story collection that legitimately crackles with energy. This is the way Laura Van Den Berg writes. Each story is a tiny, sparking thing that occupies its own unique universe, complete with a sedated, yet evocative lyricism. Though compact within themselves, they are each intrinsically connected by the weight of effusive sadness that is at once withheld, but alluded to by expert characterization. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of stories for an array of reasons, but I’ve shortened the extensive list to a few main points. Van Den Berg has a rare energy about her prose that is oftentimes lacking in modern literature today, I believe. Her stories are grounded in our reality, but there’s a faint shimmer of the speculative about them in varying degrees. They differ in their magic, and that’s the beauty of Van Den Berg’s narrative ability. She switches stories completely: once she’s done with one, it’s a closed chapter, and off to the next plot that is as unfamiliar and strange and wonderful as the latter. Her stores are jam-packed with the right amount of quality information that allows us to trust the author. From self-styled gangs, to Antarctica, to acrobatic family dynasties, there’s a wealth of knowledge in each, and it’s just as much a learning experience as a reading one. 

Each of these stories deserves to be read separately, for they are all-encompassing realities for the unquiet souls of the women who reside within them. They are quiet, but stark in the daily realities we oftentimes fail to miss. They are powerful and hungry, just like their misguided protagonists.

Reviewed by M.B. Sellers

Book Information
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/5/2013
Pages: 256

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