Laura van den Berg’s new story collection, set frequently in Florida, is a series of melancholy meditations on death, grief and travel. Her first- person narrators stumble over the process of storytelling; in “Last Night,” for instance, a writing teacher reflects on the implausibility of her own tale. At 17, the narrator stays in a treatment facility after several suicide attempts. She successfully persuades a guard to let her walk freely off the premises, then interrupts herself to offer this critique: “This is the problem with translating experiences into fiction, the way certain truths read like lies.”
Later, she asserts, “I am telling a story now”; later still, “I want to tell you about the night I got hit by a train and died. The thing is — it never happened.”
“Cult of Mary” features a posturing widower who ultimately confesses that his wife is alive; in “The Pitch,” a man denies his brother’s childhood disappearance. Most of these stories grapple with the intersection of fiction and truth, just as most of them share a preoccupation with death.
In “Hill of Hell,” a mother grieves “twin losses” — first, a stillborn; then, an adult child diagnosed with a terminal illness. Having “embraced the ‘positive death’ movement,” the daughter spends time at “death cafes” and plans a “celebration of life party,” at which guests praise the daughter for having qualities the mother does not recognize. “Was this the person she had been all along?” the mother wonders.
Van den Berg’s characters often challenge the accuracy of memory as well as of seemingly objective matters: Is there a second boy in the childhood photograph, or not? Yes, asserts the narrator of “The Pitch”; no, insists her husband, who finds the sight of his lost brother unbearable.
Siblings play a crucial role in several of these stories. In “Volcano House,” a twin joins her brother-in-law in a state of liminal grief after her sister is randomly shot; in the titular story, Margot decides to become her sister, Louise, at a conference, taking her name tag and then falling into the complexities of Louise’s life.
All of the work has a dangerous, eerie charge; “Your Second Wife” and “Friends” focus on particularly unsettling encounters. At times, the characters from one story to the next are perhaps too similar in their matter-of-fact approach to the moribund. When the narrator of “Karolina” invites her ex-sister-in-law to spend the night in her hotel, her generosity seems designed for the story’s convenience. “Lizards,” a standout story in this collection, features a married couple drying increasingly fragile, unwieldy dishes as their conversation grows ever more difficult. This is one of van den Berg’s strengths: The mundane becomes swiftly, surprisingly, sinister.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Electric Literature, LennyLetter, Narrative, the Millions, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears
By: Laura van den Berg.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 206 pages, $26.