Title: The Isle of Youth
Author: Laura van den Berg
Genre: Short Stories
Setting: Argentina • France • Cuba • USA
Design by Abby Kagan
Publisher: FSG Originals (November 5, 2013)
Literary Awards: Amazon Best Book of the Month (November 2013) | Won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters (others)
I’ve always wanted to read a book of short stories. I was debating between this book and Tenth of December by George Saunders, but I finally chose this partly because of the cover and the author being female; in support for the #readwomen2014 initiative. After reading The Isle of Youth, I am going to try more short story books that I mentioned in this post.
Laura van den Berg has created an original, smart and engaging piece of work with The Isle of Youth. It evoked haunting thoughts about our connections with others and the struggle to find ourselves. While all these stories are about women trying to grapple with their own difficult and complex circumstances, each story stands on its own. At times strange, mysterious, and unsettling, the stories draw you in without any ounce of demand or coercion. The stories were written with admirable brevity and you can’t help but read them. My favorite stories from the book were Antarctica, Lessons and the title story, The Isle of Youth.
The women in The Isle of Youth have experienced abandonment in its different guises, but each character and story remains distinct. They long to connect with their loved ones, but everyone seems to be leaving them and asking them to move on as well. We either get the sense that they are trying to escape their loneliness while struggling to move on, or they have resigned themselves to their fate, not wanting to do more. When an opportunity shows, they become impulsive and act upon it without much further thought. Some of their decisions border on the ludicrous at times. One can’t help but feel that these decisions will cause them more harm unless someone intervenes. These characters seem to be trapped in their lives and relationships. Personally, I didn’t consider them to be thoroughly likeable, although their stories allowed me to sympathize with them.
There is this sense of incompleteness in the stories, seemingly juxtaposed with the characters’ own emptiness and desire for something more. While the endings are uncertain, it doesn’t mean they are unconvincing. The vagueness of how each story ends serves not only to mimic the uncertainty each character faces as they move along with their lives, but also perfectly mirror their imperfections and indecisiveness. It just shows that we never know what’s coming.
People say Laura van den Berg is one of the great new writers we have today… I can’t agree more. Her writing is smart, energetic and sophisticated. Each of the stories in The Isle of Youth left me affected. In this book, I came face to face with my own vulnerabilities. The ambiguity of the women’s situation is a stark contrast to the author’s simple, straightforward, and unadorned writing. The clarity and simplicity of it all is one of the things I adored in this book. The stories seem familiar, but the depth and complexity of these great stories will no doubt stay with me. This is the first book of short stories I’ve read in my adult life, and the first book written by Laura van den Berg that I’ve read. I don’t think I could have picked a more perfect book of short stories to read. I am definitely looking forward to her next book. Highly recommended.
- Laura van den Berg’s first novel “Find Me” will be released by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in early 2015.
- Her first short story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009) was longlisted for The Story Prize, and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. Here is a video of the author being interviewed at the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival.
- Laura van den Berg’s husband is the writer Paul Yoon (Once the Shore, Snow Hunters).
- According to this interview, Laura van den Berg considers the story “Antarctica” (The Isle of Youth) the most difficult to write. She later mentions that, “It was that balance between the intimately familiar and the radically unfamiliar that finally helped me see that story through.”
- Did you know that some universities and magazines have requested the author to send a different photo because she looked “aloof, unapproachable, tough, scary, and/or sad” in her photo on her Goodreads author page? Personally, I don’t have any problem with it. She shares her thoughts in the same interview about “un-smiling woman that makes some people so f*cking uncomfortable.” Also, read about how Laura van den berg deals with criticism. Hint: She uses it as “an excuse to have a cathartic dance party in the middle of the day”. I love her already.