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Secrets Mar The Gloss Of 'Youth' For These Heroines

by Rosecrans Baldwin
Nov 17, 2013 (All Things Considered)

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The Isle of Youth is Laura van den Berg's second collection of stories. Her first, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was published in 2009.

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It's a funny thing to read a book and realize two things simultaneously. One: some people you know, whose taste you trust, will really love it. Two: some people you know, whose opinions you value, will want to toss it across the room.

For me, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is a great example. He's one of the biggest authors in the world, a global bestseller. Millions of people love that guy, myself included. But I also know many people, readers and writers, who think he's a total sham.

Well, for those in the former camp, 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 Laura van den Berg's second collection of short stories. It's a small book, but it feels much bigger. I could have kept reading for days.

In a way, each one is a detective story, sometimes literally and sometimes not. The main character is always a youngish woman, trying to figure out what the hell happened to her life.

One time, she's in Antarctica, investigating her brother's death. Next she's a gumshoe in Florida, spying on a cheating husband. There's one story where she's part of a teenage bank-robbing gang; another where she follows acrobats around Paris.

In each story, the narrator has the same vulnerable self-reliance — her private-eye detachment from events. The heat stays on simmer, even when the plot turns extreme.

"I breathed in deeply," the narrator says in one story, "but when I exhaled, no air seemed to come out, like something inside me had eaten it."

There are one or two duds in here. When you can tell van den Berg spent more effort writing than storytelling, they become a little brittle. But after the first story, when the book gets rolling, she's completely on her game.

My favorite was the last piece, which also happens to be the title story. It's about a pair of identical twins, one wild, one dull, who barely talk to each other. We find out the wild sister once tried to steal the plain one's husband. But now she needs her twin to swap lives for a couple days, in order to fool a drug lord. And the ensuing events are full of delicacy and surprise.

Plenty of authors write with this sort of detachment. It can be divisive, sometimes too cool to love. I'm thinking of Joan Didion, Mary Robison, and, again, Murakami. But for those of us who do love them, Laura van den Berg is a new name to add to the list.

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