Seven short stories with strong – and very real – female protagonists.
The stories in Laura van den Berg’s “The Isle of Youth” are darting, shifting things. All feature female central characters, and all could fairly be considered stories of trouble: rainbows and butterflies and happy endings make no appearances. That’s not to say the stories are sorrowful or bleak. In fact, the strangest thing about Van den Berg’s work is that, though her stories find footing in dark matter, the reader ends up feeling something akin to having been freed by the end of the reading.
Take, for instance, “The Greatest Escape,” the sixth of the seven stories in the collection. The setting is Hollywood, Fla., and 17-year-old Crystal is her mother’s assistant in a magic show that’s barely hanging on. Crystal, along with being her mother’s assistant, robs men in the theater’s bar after magic shows, saving the money for when she turns 18 and is free to flee the dingy life in which she wears a gold bathing suit during magic shows that attract “men who wandered over from nearby hotels and drank during the shows.” None of this, however, is the real story: The real story is that Crystal hopes someday to set out to find her father, a famous magician who disappeared before she was born, and though it’s unfair to give too much away, it’s fair to say that the story hinges around the fact that, as Crystal herself notes in her narration, “Knowledge is a curious thing.”
Or consider “I Looked for You, I Called Your Name,” the collection’s first story, in which a newlywed’s Argentinian honeymoon is massively disrupted — a plane makes an emergency landing, the husband accidentally breaks his wife’s nose, and, to end the story, there’s a fire in the hotel. The above is more than enough detail for most writers to work with but, in Van den Berg’s adroit handing, there are further complications: The young wife in the story is a twin, but her sister “when we were just four weeks old … died a silent, inexplicable death in the crib next to mine.” Because of that, she’s felt “half-present and half-absent” throughout life, and so the story’s central arc has less to do with handling the problems and complications of the honeymoon than those the characters bring with them.
And what characters. The women in Van den Berg’s stories are troublingly real as they search for knowledge or information they believe they want and then, on discovery, find out the price they’ll pay for such knowledge. “It was a terrible flaw, our inability to see where our lives were leading us,” the narrator says in “Opa-Locka,” a story featuring a pair of sisters doing private detective work for a woman who says, “I want to know what’s real.” She’s speaking about her husband and his misdeeds, but, in her way, she’s articulating a scary truth about every searching character in this tremendous collection.
Weston Cutter is from St. Paul and currently teaches at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind.