How to Read a Novelist

The Isle of Youth

9780374710613 fc
Paperback, FSG Originals, 2013
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Laura van den Berg

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Laura van den Berg's gorgeous new book, The Isle of Youth, explores the lives of women mired in secrecy and deception. From a newlywed caught in an inscrutable marriage, to private eyes working a baffling case in South Florida, to a teenager who assists her magician mother and steals from the audience, the characters in these bewitching stories are at once vulnerable and dangerous, bighearted and ruthless, and they will do what it takes to survive.
Each tale is spun with elegant urgency, and the reader grows attached to the marginalized young women in these stories—women grappling with the choices they've made and searching for the clues to unlock their inner worlds. This is the work of a fearless writer whose stories feel both magical and mystical, earning her the title of "sorceress" from her readers. Be prepared to fall under her spell.
An NPR Best Book of 2013

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An excerpt from The Isle of Youth

I Looked for You, I Called Your Name

The first thing that went wrong was the emergency landing. My husband and I were both reading In Flight Magazine and enjoying the complimentary wine in first class—I’d never flown first class before, but it was our honeymoon and we thought that was what we were supposed to do; drink in the daytime, luxuriate in our good fortune—when the plane lurched and oxygen masks fell from the ceiling and a passenger in the back screamed. We didn’t know it then, but the pi lot was already steering the plane toward an empty brown field, preparing for our descent. 

The landing itself was terrifying: a hard, screeching wallop that knocked us around in our seats. Wine spilled in our laps. Bags overturned and people’s possessions spread into the aisle. My husband elbowed me right in the nose and I tasted blood in my mouth. When we finally stopped, the flight attendants, all of them leggy and red-lipped, applauded, as though the emergency landing had been performed for our amusement. I unbuckled my seatbelt and cupped my nose, stunned silent by the pain.

“The seatbelt sign is still on,” my husband said, resting a hand on my back. 

I leaned forward, away from his touch. These were the kinds of moments that had been recently giving me pause. We’re new at this, I kept telling myself, but there was no denying that I was often confounded by his priorities. 

I sat up and touched my nose. It felt swollen. I looked down at the pool of red in my lap and dipped my pinkie finger into the wine. We thought we had overcome the worst, having endured the flight from Newark to Houston, the ten-hour trip to Buenos Aires, and the connection to El Calafate Airport in Patagonia, but all I could think about was how wrong we’d been. 

My husband continued staring at the illuminated seatbelt sign. My entire face hummed with pain. 

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” I said to him, licking the wine off my fingertip. “We’re on the ground now.” 

Within an hour, black buses arrived and carried us away from the field and the airplane sitting uselessly in it. A representative from the airline came too, a young man dressed in a pinstriped suit. It was a mechanical error, we were told. The injuries had all been minor: a woman cradling her forearm, a man with a gash on his cheek, my banged nose. A full refund would be forthcoming. Th e man passed out little cakes in plastic wrappers to the passengers.

In the bus, my husband took my hand, but let go when he realized my fingers were sticky with wine. He pulled hand sanitizer from his bag and squirted a dollop into his palm. 

“What are you sanitizing?” I said. “You just touched me.” 

“If you’d read the statistics on how many people don’t wash their hands after using public toilets, you’d be sanitizing too.” 

I went to the tiny bathroom in the back of the bus and looked in the mirror. My nose was swollen, the nostrils crusted with dried blood. I tore a piece of toilet paper in half and wedged the white clumps into my nose. As I made my way back to my seat, a few of the other passengers stared. 

I looked out at the fields dotted with sheep, their coats gray and shaggy. We passed a stone church and a woman selling paper-wrapped fish from a roadside stand. We were outside San Antonio Oeste, where our resort, Las Grutas, was located, on the San Matías Gulf. This was in the province of Río Negro, the northern edge of Patagonia. As we drew closer to Las Grutas, the landscape got rockier; we went by a row of hulking granite formations, reddish in color, like a miniature mountain range. It was January when we left our home in Philadelphia, but in Patagonia it was summer, the weather warm and breezy. 

When we finally arrived at the resort, a tall white building with arched windows, we learned we’d been upgraded to a suite, courtesy of the airline. In the lobby, we passed the manager’s office. The door was open. A TV was mounted on the wall and tuned to the news. I glimpsed a reporter standing by the white nose of an airplane and paused, but I didn’t understand enough Spanish to make out what was being said. I’d been practicing Spanish with a Rosetta Stone video, and when I arrived in Patagonia, I was disappointed to learn that I’d retained only a collection of random words, fragments of sentences and thoughts. 

From our bedroom, there was a marvelous view of the sea cliff s and the beach beneath them. The sand was powdery and white and marked with dark rocks, including a huge stone in the vague shape of a ship. The tide was going out and every time the waves rolled away they left a sheen on the beach. For the first time since we landed, I felt like everything was going to be okay. 

That night, during the cocktail hour held in the lobby, we struck up a conversation with a British couple who were in Patagonia to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary. Around us waiters in maroon uniforms served pastries with cheese in the center and medio medios, cocktails made of white wine and champagne. Before leaving our room, I’d taken the paper out of my nose and noticed that the skin beneath my eyes had started to darken. 

“A decade,” the wife kept saying. “Can you believe it?” 

“It goes by like that,” the husband would add, snapping his fingers.

They were the Humbolts, George and Christina, and they had already been in Patagonia for a week. George was tall and lanky, an overgrown boy, and wore white socks with his sandals, his toes poking over the edges. Christina was petite and graceful. Her blond hair had been gathered into a loose bun, revealing a slender neck wrapped in a fluffy brown scarf. 

“It’s made from guanaco hair,” she said when she caught me eyeing it. “A guanaco is kind of like a llama, but it isn’t actually a llama. It just looks like one.” 

“We got that from a market in San Antonio Oeste,” George said. 

“You should go this weekend,” she said before filling us in on everything else they’d been doing in Patagonia, encouraging scuba diving and bird-watching especially. “These waters are the warmest in all of Patagonia,” she said. “And there are six endemic species of bird in the area.” 

“Can you name them?” my husband asked. 

“Let’s see, there’s the sandy gallito, the white cachalote, and the rusty monjita,” Christina said. “And then there’s some kind of warbling finch, the burrowing parrot, and the yellow cardinal, which is endangered.” 

The men raised their glasses, impressed. Christina shrugged and tucked a loose wave of hair behind her ear. “I read a book,” she said. 

“Don’t forget Iguazú Falls,” George said. “You have to take a charter plane, but the hotel will set it all up. They’re really something. Taller than Niagara.”

“Not another plane,” I said, touching my nose. 

“Oh, you must go.” Christina wrapped her small hand around my forearm. Her fingers were firm and cold. “You really must.” 

“We’ll make the arrangements tomorrow morning. I doubt we’ll have two near-death experiences in one trip,” my husband said, and everyone laughed but me. 

When George wanted to know how we met, my husband explained that it had been at my neighbor’s holiday party. It was snowing that night, and I was the only person not wearing some kind of Christmas sweater; my neighbor, for example, had worn a red shirt with little gold bells glued onto her nipples and a Santa hat. 

“When I first walked in, I saw her,” my husband said, his enthusiasm growing. “I went to the bar and mixed her a drink. I brought it over to her and told her my name and that was that.” 

George and Christina nodded, then looked at me. “That’s right,” I said. “He brought me a screwdriver. And then we went out for six months and then he proposed one night, when we were on our way home from a movie. It was raining and he stopped on the sidewalk and asked me right there.” I remembered standing under a streetlamp and looking down at his face, his eyelashes thick with rain, and feeling a tremendous surge of hope. 

“It was spontaneous,” my husband said. “Possibly the first spontaneous thing I’ve ever done.”

“And possibly the last.” This time, I was the one trying to make a joke, but no one laughed. 

The story we were telling was at once true and not true. The facts were right, but certain details had been omitted. I never brought up my intense dislike for screwdrivers, or said that I drank it only because I had been very lonely that year and didn’t want him to stop talking to me. I never brought up all the time I spent in dark movie theaters or play houses or classical music halls—the hallmarks of my husband’s carefully planned dates—trying to understand what, exactly, I felt for him. An attachment, certainly, though I was never sure it was love. But what did it mean to be in love? Maybe all the things people said about falling in love, about the initial torrent of joy, were a lie. And then there was the matter of how my days and weeks and months had become so unexceptional, they were nearly indistinguishable from one another—marked only by my job at a second- rate law firm and the occasional date and watching the weather shift through my apartment windows. 

In Philadelphia, I was close to my parents in Bala Cynwyd, where I had grown up, where my twin sister, when we were just four weeks old, had died a silent, inexplicable death in the crib next to mine. I was too young to remember anything about her; as an adult I had tried and tried. Whenever I took the train from Philadelphia to Bala Cynwyd on the weekends, the absent look on my parents’ faces—it would appear for only an instant, when I emerged from the crowd outside the station and met their eyes through the car windshield—reminded me of how I had failed to fill my life and my sister’s at the same time, a task that had left me with the feeling of always being half-present and half-absent. As the years passed, it became harder to tell the difference between the two, to understand what exactly my capacities were. My husband was an only child. He had come to Philadelphia from Kansas City and saw his parents once a year. He always seemed resolute and sure. 

On our dates, I would sit beside him in the dark and gaze at his profile and think all of this through. I was still thinking it through after I moved into his apartment and after we got married. I was still thinking it through as I stood in this hotel lobby in Patagonia, trying to understand, a sketch artist attempting to construct a face from disparate descriptions of noses and ears. But these were the kinds of details that could not be spoken of without inflicting real damage. 

“Oh, I just love these kinds of stories,” Christina said. “Now how are you finding married life?” 

“It’s nice,” I said. “A little confusing at times, but mostly nice.” I scratched the side of my nose. 

Later that night, when we were back in our room, my husband would tell me how embarrassing it was to hear me describe married life as “confusing.” How it made us seem strange and hurt his feelings too. I would point out that I had also used the word “nice,” but he would be unmoved, taking a shower that lasted over an hour. But when I’d said it in the hotel lobby, he’d just smiled a flat smile and left to refresh his drink. 

Arranging a trip to Iguazú Falls was surprisingly easy. In the morning, a taxi drove us to the airport, where we took a charter plane. During our flight, I never once looked out the window, sitting straight in my seat and trying to ignore the crushing pain in my nose. My husband’s annoyance with me had lingered; he’d snapped at me when I was slow going through airport security, and on the plane he scrutinized the Iguazú section in his guidebook, ignoring me completely. 

At Iguazú, the guide, a short man with a carefully groomed mustache, picked us up. On the way to the falls, he told us about the legend of their creation: a god had planned to marry a woman, but she loved a mortal man. When she tried to escape with him in a canoe, the god divided the river. Th e waterfalls were formed and the couple would never stop drowning. Th e guide told us this story without enthusiasm, never once raising his eyes to meet ours in the rearview. I wondered if the legend was really a legend or just something for the tourists. 

“Actually,” my husband said, “the falls are the result of a massive volcanic eruption that occurred approximately two hundred thousand years ago.” 

“Garganta del Diablo,” the guide said in response.

“What does that mean?” I whispered to my husband. 

“Devil’s Throat,” he said, pointing to a page in his guidebook. 

We entered the falls from the Argentinean town of Puerto Iguazú. Th e horseshoe-shaped cascades spread across two miles of the Iguazú River, the guide explained as we started our tour on a wood- planked walkway. My husband moved briskly. The guide struggled to keep up, and it wasn’t long before I fell behind them both. As we trekked higher, the treetops blended together, making the canopy so dense it obscured the sky. Small brown monkeys swung across the trees. We passed stands of bamboo, orchids, and ceibos, which, my husband called over his shoulder, were the national flower of Argentina. I imagined George and Christina walking this same trail, identifying birds and primates together, reaching down at the same time to touch the velvety leaves of a plant. 

When the falls came into view, they were just as spectacular as the Humbolts had said. Water poured over two massive cliff s and pooled in a huge expanse speckled with mossy rocks, as though a lush island had been overtaken by a flood. And then there was the sound, the deep rushing noise that burned away the confusion and the worry. My fingertips tingled and there was a ringing in my ears, but it was pleasant, like distant bells. 

“It’s the sound of the drowned lovers,” the guide said to us. “Time has turned them into something beautiful.” 

My husband looked at me and slipped his guidebook into his back pocket. He offered me bug repellent. I let him spray his palms and rub my bare arms and legs. He took his time, making sure the backs of my knees and the insides of my elbows had been covered. His fingertips were cool and I relished the sensation of him touching certain parts of my body—the bones in my ankles—for the very first time. I listened to the falls and wondered if what I was feeling could be called love. 

“One of the seven natural wonders of the world,” the guide said after we finished. 

“Bug spray?” I said, and this time, my husband laughed. A cloud of turquoise-and-black butterflies swarmed around one of the rocks, touched down for a moment, and then scattered. 

“Garganta del Diablo,” the guide said again. My husband and I followed him to a footbridge, which, after a great deal of hiking, led us to the Devil’s Throat. It was much larger than the others, with jagged rocks jutting through the curtains of water. Th e sound was deafening. 

“The best one,” he shouted. “Out of hundreds of falls, this is the best one.” 

“We’re already seeing the best one?” I called out. We’d only been out for a few hours and had many more ahead of us; it seemed a little disappointing to have already seen the best. 

“Yes.” The guide struggled to be heard over the roar of the water. “The very best.” 

My husband touched my face and said something I couldn’t understand—I couldn’t hear anything then except for the magnificent thunder of the falls—but I looked at him like I did. The guide produced a camera, and my husband put his arm around me. He had the guide take photos from every angle imaginable; it went on for so long, smiling became painful. Th e whole time, my husband kept talking to me. I watched his lips move, but I missed every word. 

That night, back at Las Grutas, we made love in the shower, the water turned off , his hand wrapped around the back of my neck. Near the end, he accidentally brushed against my nose and I cried out in pain. Afterward, we lay in bed for a long time without speaking; I would have liked to believe it was the blissful quiet that can follow a spectacular day, but it felt like a different kind of silence. 

Eventually he fell asleep. I stayed awake. I tried counting backward from five hundred. I tried watching shadows twitch on the ceiling. I tried picturing us standing on that bridge, the Garganta del Diablo cascading behind us, but all I could see was a great wall of water, blindingly white and falling like an avalanche. 

I got out of bed, dressed, and slipped out of our room. In the lobby, the manager’s office door was locked, the front desk unattended. I left the hotel and walked down to the beach, thinking about what my husband might have said to me on that bridge. I assumed he was saying beautiful things—how he felt about us, our life together—but maybe I was wrong. Maybe my doubt was infectious. Maybe he was no longer sure what his capacities were. The water was dark and rolling. Something prickly brushed against my ankle. I sat on a rock and faced the ocean. I rested my hands over my nose, as I had on the plane, and listened to the hushed sound of my breath. 

The beach was so dark that if the moon hadn’t shifted and cast a fan of light onto the strip of water I happened to be watching, I might have missed her altogether. But when the profile of a swimming woman entered my field of vision, I recognized Christina Humbolt from the way her hair was gathered at the nape, just as it had been at the cocktail reception, and the slim shape of her shoulders. I imagined her husband sleeping soundly in their room, unaware that his wife had slipped into a dimension of her own. Or, for all I knew, she went swimming every night and told her husband about it the next morning over breakfast. Other people’s lives were no less impossible to understand than my own. 

She stopped swimming and looked toward the beach. I waved, first casually and then more vigorously, crisscrossing my arms over my head like I was in need of rescue. I wanted her to come to land. I wanted to ask her things about the life she led. But she just looked in my direction for a long time, her body bobbing in the water, before continuing. She had seen me, I was certain, but she wasn’t coming out to meet me.

I moved my tongue across my teeth, pushing upward until the pressure translated into a bright line of pain. Soon I lost sight of Christina, but I didn’t want to go back to my room. Instead I raked the sand with my fingers and thought about how for as long as I could remember, I’d felt an emptiness where other things were supposed to be. 

I opened my mouth and started packing it with fistfuls of damp sand. Th e 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. 

Days later, I would still be finding the evidence, a grain stuck in a molar, a scratch on my tongue. One afternoon, at lunch, I would blow my nose and notice specks of sand on the tissue. And years later, after Patagonia was far behind us, this was the moment I would remember—because I had acted inexplicably in the middle of the night and I never had to explain myself.

I looked for you

I Looked for You, I Called Your Name

From the Archives

Laura van den Berg

  • “…takes wry pleasure in reversing expected gender roles…Ms. van den Berg is perceptive about the ways that her characters--many of them demoralized wives--feel trapped within their identities and grasp at unwise escapes.”

    Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
  • “A master of the short story creates seven elaborate worlds with beautiful and haunting characters at a time when it feels like most short story collections are pretty thinly plotted.”

  • “With her latest collection of seven stories, The Isle of Youth, Laura van den Berg gives readers a great place to maroon themselves…even though much remains unresolved, van den Berg's stories are still revelatory.”

    The Cleveland Plain Dealer
  • “Wonder and mystery are recurring motifs. The women here are one step ahead of disaster or one step behind it, and either way they are eager to discover what's next . . . Van den Berg, in this wonderful collection, never lets us turn away.”

    Natalie Serber, The New York Times Book Review
  • “Confident, gripping stories . . . Ms. van den Berg spins complex plots around a sense of emotional emptiness. Her stories are bursting at the seams, while her characters are lonely to the core.”

    John Williams, The New York Times
  • “The stories in Laura van den Berg's dreamy The Isle of Youth are absolutely captivating.”

    Vanity Fair
  • The Isle of Youth, is a smart, fun, noir-y treasure map of where families hide their secrets and lost souls hide themselves. Van den Berg somehow packs a duffel bag of plot into carry-on-size stories. She also has the right kind of range: from brutal to moving to funny, South America to Paris to Antarctica, really great to freaking outstanding.”

    Kathryn Schulz, New York Magazine
  • “Darting, shifting things . . . 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 . . . [a] tremendous collection.”

    Weston Cutter, Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • “If you like Murakami's cool prose, that Raymond Chandler-esque aloofness in the face of strange events, have I got the book for you . . . [The Isle of Youth] is a small book, but it feels much bigger. I could have kept reading for days.”

    Rosecrans Baldwin, NPR's All Things Considered
  • “Curiosity--sprung from idleness, neglect, or betrayal--is a force to be reckoned with in these delicately layered narratives linked by themes of mystery and survival …Van den Berg gracefully captures such unseen moments of triumph and failure as lives are derailed--and discovered--in her stories.”

    ELLE Magazine
  • “If you like your female protagonists quirky, questing, and quixotic, you will adore this story collection and the author's ability to bore into her characters' innermost thoughts, piercing straight through to their red-hot centers.”

    O, The Oprah Magazine
  • “van den Berg's sophomore collection of mysterious stories follows likeable ladies with dangerous behavior.”

    Marie Claire
  • “Amusing and absorbing…”

  • “The small, genuine and insightful moments at the heart of each tale mark the progress of a distinguished young writer.”

    Time Out New York
  • “Van den Berg excels at complexity, ec­centricity, maximalism of plot . . . Her emphases on elaborate plot and inten­tional loose ends are a refreshing departure from the contemporary taste for tidy, mini­mal plot paired with maximal voices.”

    The New Inquiry
  • “You know how we're always going on about how this is a really good time for fans of short stories? Laura van den Berg is one of the best examples of why that is totally true, and this new collection on FSG should be all the proof you need. She is at the head of the pack when it comes to young writers that are more comfortable with the shorter form.”

    Jason Diamond, Flavorwire
  • “A sturdy short story collection works like a good album: strong piece by piece, but also on the whole. "I Looked for You, I Called Your Name" is as strong an opener as I've ever seen in a book of short stories, and it sets the tone and pace for the rest of Laura van den Berg's second work, The Isle of Youth.”

  • “If ever there was a writer going places, it's Laura van den Berg, who follows up her debut collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, with the ambitious, modular The Isle of Youth, whose seven stories are arranged along the themes of family secrets with noirish intrigue.”

    Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
  • “A mesmerizing collection of stories about the secrets that keep us.”

  • “In The Isle of Youth, a group of young women narrators seek to understand the people in their lives as a means of understanding themselves. Magically, Laura van den Berg turns a group of lost souls into a beautiful and compelling read.”

    Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder and Bel Canto
  • “Laura van den Berg is one of the most freakishly talented young writers at work today, and a master of the short story form. Hers are deliciously unnerving, moving, and monstrous tales.”

    Karen Russell, author of Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Swamplandia!
  • “I've never met Laura, but it seems like we would come across a new story by her every month or so during our reading for Best American Nonrequired Reading. They were uniformly excellent--emotionally complex, very raw--but always with a mixture of pathos and humour that made me think of Lorrie Moore.”

    Dave Eggers, Huck magazine
  • The Isle of Youth is simply astonishing. Each story is more surprising, more urgent, more savagely frank than the last. This is an awe-inspiring and necessary collection from one of the most sure-footed writers of our time.”

    Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn
  • “This collection is rich, surprising, and a lot of fun. The Isle of Youth plays with crime stories of a kind, noir tales of deceit and betrayal, but really each investigates the spaces, the distances, that keep human beings from ever truly knowing one another. Van den Berg is a ridiculously talented writer, and this wonderful book provides the proof.”

    Victor LaValle, author of The Devil in Silver
  • “Wonder and mystery are recurring motifs. The women here are one step ahead of disaster or one step behind it, and either way they are eager to discover what's next . . . Van den Berg, in this wonderful collection, never lets us turn away.”

    Natalie Serber, The New York Times Book Review“Confident, gripping stories . . . Ms. van den Berg spins complex plots around a sense of emotional emptiness. Her stories are bursting at the seams, while her characters are lonely to the core.”
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Laura van den Berg