HAILED by Salon as “the best young writer in America”, Laura Van Den Berg’s debut novel, Find Me, is set in a dystopian future in which a deadly, unnamed disease has spread throughout the United States.
Laura Van den Berg
Del Rey, €15
Some people are immune, however, and one of these is the novel’s narrator, Joy.
For the first half of the book, Joy resides in “the Hospital” under the guidance and study of Dr Bek, whose task it is to find a cure for this modern plague, mainly by studying those who are immune.
Other patients (or, as it turns out, inmates) of this institution include Joy’s love interest, Louis, and friends Sam and Chris, twins, who, she discovers, are digging their way out of the hospital through a hole in the floor of their room.
As people come to the institution to find sanctuary, Joy and the other patients learn that the disease has long since subsided, hence there is no need for Dr Bek to keep patients interred against their will.
Eventually, Chris and Sam escape — only to freeze to death in the surrounding forests.
The disease manifests itself on the skin by the presence of silver scales, and by a complete loss of memory.
It is “an epidemic of forgetting” from which the body eventually caves in on itself.
When Louis succumbs to the disease, Joy is determined to leave the Hospital and successfully escapes.
What keeps Joy (who grew up in a series of foster homes) sane in such hopeless circumstances is a desire to find her birth mother, who, she discovers (initially, via contact from an aunt in Boston when the disease first broke out, and, later, via watching TV in the hospital) is now a celebrated Florida-based marine biologist who regularly presents sea-themed programmes.
The second half of the novel follows Joy on her quest for her mother. En route from the north- east to the south she encounters a devastated America.
Society still functions: there are buses, a number of shops and motels are open, people drive cars, etc, but, post-plague, the country is in deep depression.
After escaping a dodgy motel owner and his accomplice, Joy chances upon her adopted brother, Marcus, who has a penchant for wearing a rabbit’s mask.
Marcus seems to have a great deal of the clairvoyant about him, is keenly “sensitive” to the situations in which he and his sister find themselves.
After a long bus-ride across the US, Joy and Marcus spend time in a dilapidated house owned by a strange couple, Darcie and Nelson. Running beneath the house is a tunnel - to which Darcie goes when she’s drunk, hoping to retrieve her lost memories.
Eventually, this part of Joy’s odyssey is also left behind, and she and Marcus make their way to Florida, from where Joy travels out alone to her mother’s island, off the Florida coast.
It takes a while to warm to Van Den Berg’s story. There’s something cloying and unattractive about the tale itself; nonetheless, it’s a beautifully written work, crammed with distilled, poetic sentences.
Eyelids are “clay-coloured”, floor surfaces are “cool tile”, the forest is full of “impenetrable thickets of bramble and tree”, the tips of a character’s teeth are “stained caramel”.
The rhythms are sharp and distinctive throughout and as a unit the work is consistent in tone. It’s a novel that one might dip into again and again, purely for the perfection of the sentences.
The reveal regarding Joy’s most suppressed memory, of her abuse by the psychologist son of one of her foster parents, is devastating, brilliant and horrific.
Written in the first person (and present tense), Find Me has a dark and powerful immediacy.
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