This review was originally published in The Guardian US.
Florida-born writer Laura van den Berg, recently called the best young writer in America by Salon, is well known within literary circles for her for 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 citizens. The illness starts with a “constellation of silver blisters”, quickly followed by a loss of memory. Those in the hospital, including Joy, the narrator, demonstrate a resistance 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 lives as a way of fortifying themselves against the illness and as a marker of the condition if it appears.
Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg. Photograph: Blogspot
Despite this post-apocalyptic setup, van den Berg is less focused on the epidemic than she is interested in creating a world in which memory can be mined. As in other dystopian novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale orKazuo 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 drifted from foster care to children’s home, drugged on Robitussin. Although she found some kind of solace with a strange but appealing boy called Marcus, not all of her childhood experiences bear remembering, and as events in the hospital reach boiling point, the call of the outside world becomes irresistible.
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, whom Joy meets on the road.
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. “Some people stay with you in ways you don’t expect, and you try to shake them out, shake them away, but memory won’t let you,” says Joy. The same could be said of Van den Berg, whose debut novel lingers and aches in the memory.