Book review: Find Me by 'America's best young writer' Lauren van den Berg
by Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Florida-born writer Laura van den Berg, recently named the best young writer in America by entertainment website Salon, is well known within literary circles for her spare, poetic short stories focusing on themes of loss, isolation and abandonment. Her first novel, Find Me, is a culmination of these obsessions, exploring a dystopian future in which the major enemy is "an epidemic of forgetting".
In a hospital near La Harpe, Kansas, 150 patients are kept in isolation from an Ebola-style pandemic that has wiped out 400,000 people. The illness starts with a "constellation of silver blisters", quickly followed by memory loss. Those in the hospital, including Joy, the narrator, are resistant to the disease, possibly through a genetic abnormality that could be exploited for a cure. While the staff conduct tests on them, the patients are encouraged to remember their past as a way of fortifying themselves against the illness and as a marker of the condition if it appears.
Despite this post-apocalyptic set-up, van den Berg is more interested in creating a world in which memory can be mined. As in other dystopian novels such as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale or Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Joy's narration is elegiac, acutely aware of her proximity to death, both now and in the past.
After being abandoned as a baby by her mother, Joy drifts from foster care to children's home. Although she finds some kind of solace with a boy called Marcus, not all of her childhood experiences bear remembering, and as events in the hospital reach boiling point, the outside world beckons.
The second half of the novel is a road trip. Finally free of the hospital and the sickness, Joy travels through America to find her mother. She is now free to ruminate and come to terms with her past, in which she was abused. "I think someone out there wanted very badly for another person to forget what they knew. I think someone started this whole goddamn thing just to make a person forget," says a character called No Name.
Without the structure imposed by the hospital and its daily routine, the narrative wanders, and some of the coincidences that occur are implausible. The novel, however, powerfully conveys the fact that there are some things in life you don't want to forget. The same can be said of van den Berg's novel.