First book of 2018 and it’s an excellent book of short stories from this American writer. My wife Katie bought me her more recent book of short stories about a year ago (Isle of Youth) which was fabulous, so I ordered this (her first book of stories) and her most recent novel (Find Me, which I’m yet to get to). This was not easy to get, as it’s not in print in the UK, I think – at least I couldn’t find it online in the UK, so this one winged its way from the US of A.
I really enjoyed it: there is a loose connecting theme of water (and water-based monsters) running through the stories, but there’s also huge variety as well. As with the best short stories (for me, anything by Lorrie Moore and Yiyun Li, or a Geoff Dyer episode), these involve and engage and stay with you. In fact, one of the early ones about a young woman raising her brother, working in a dead-end job, and the younger brother exploring a hole in the road is quite stunning, and incredibly memorable. Another, about a woman naturalist meeting a couple obsessed by the Loch Ness monster manages to be troubling and moving. And the title story, about a mother and daughter taking different paths as they grow apart, is evocative and believable.
In all, great stuff – amazing that this is van den Berg’s first set of stories and, while it doesn’t quite reach the high points of Isle of Youth for me, it’s still some of the best short story writing around. Lorrie Moore is the benchmark for me; these aren’t quite as well achieved, and they don’t have the same cutting edge of wit and humour that Moore often has, but they have a different mix of elements: they feel younger, darker and stranger than Moore’s stories. What they have in common is a sense of melancholia underlying things; marriages are ending, children are disowning their parents, and things are complicated and sad. A bit like real life then.
Highly recommended if you can get a copy. I’m looking forward to van den Berg’s first novel, which is sitting alongside Yiyun Li’s Kinder than Solitude. I have high hopes for both.