Leslie’s POV: It is true that the characters in this slim volume of stories are dark. Very dark. But they are rounded enough to capture our imagination. When I finished the book my first thought was, “What kind of mind comes up with these characters and these odd circumstances?” In fact, the predicaments in which these folks find themselves–at an acrobat party in Paris; in Antarctica; gazing after The Isle of Youth itself–almost have a comic element to them. What are these people doing here and why is the obvious question.
Van Den Berg fills in the blanks. Almost in spite of ourselves we are caught up in the flight of the children with those androgynous and confusing names, or find ourselves at the bunker in the tundra at the bottom of the world, or on the roof with the detective sisters: “For Julia, risk was like air.”
How about the savage truth in the description of the mothers of the children in “Lessons:” who were . . . “long-faced women scrubbed free of dissent and desire.”
In “The Greatest Escape,” what kind of a girl descends from ” parents (who) met at magic school?”
In the title story, “The Isle of Youth,” twin sister Sylvia is described as “. . .a shape-shifter, someone who bounced from one life to the next like a drug-resistant virus changing hosts.” How would you feel about this lady as your twin?
In the first story of the collection, poignantly titled, “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name,” the wife in an unraveling marriage tells us she once was alarmed by seeing an x-ray of a heart, “A thing we ask entirely too much of.” The same can be said of the effect these stories have on the reader.
Yes, there are sad parts–isn’t life pretty sad?–but the quirkiness and depth of Van Den Berg’s characters save the day. The fact that we get so caught up in the craziness of these lives makes the book worthwhile.
Eileen’s POV: Do I recommend this book? NO. It is so well written and the characters so well developed that I couldn’t help but carry these stories in my head and recoil at the plots.
In one short story that really struck me as particularly sad, the lead character is a 17 year old woman who is the side kick in her mother’s magic act. The act is wrought with imperfections and performed in a dingy theater to drunks and out of town businessmen. As I read I could literally smell the smoke and feel the awkwardness of performing to mostly empty seats. The mother can’t deliver even one interesting trick, and the duo seem to barely stave off unemployment, perhaps in credit to the daughter’s costume, a bikini. To make me sigh deeper, the young woman supplements her lack of salary by chatting up and then pick pocketing men in the bar after the show (she throws a little bathrobe on after the show solely for the purpose of having a sleeve in which to hide the stolen wallets).
As the mother of more than one teen aged girl my heart aches to wrap her up and roast her a chicken.
I am not often drawn to short stories, which perhaps is another reason I fall into the “not recommending” category. The book was a quick read, but a bit too dark for me after a long day (of roasting chickens and dispensing thick terry cloth robes!) Seriously though, kudos to the writer, she is immensely talented and I have to admit, I will be on the lookout for her work in the future.
Check The Isle of Youth out through the SAILS network.
My ocean physicist husband and I raised two wonderful sons, my proudest accomplishment. For many years I taught writing at a university, my job of a lifetime, and worked as a freelance writer for local publications. I am an ocean girl, sometimes profane, who loves animals, reading, and creative projects. I am curious about nearly everything. Loyal and caring, I make a good friend.