The day after my 22nd birthday, I had one of those serene, emphatic moments people write about in books. You know when the world around you seems to freeze, and all you’ve ever done in life and all you are going to do, becomes suddenly clear. For me, this moment came while Christmas tree shopping with my parents. In the midst of the New England countryside, all those questions my twenty-something self struggled with so incessantly just didn’t seem to matter anymore. It was a quick, fleeting moment – but I swear it happened.
These unexplainable flashes are often the most difficult to capture on the page. When writers try to encapsulate the experience, it can come off as self-indulgent or just plain stupid. But it is in this space that Laura van den Berg’s characters dwell. Lucky for us, she succeeds at catching this poignancy in her debut story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books; $16.95).
Read more about Laura van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us after the jump:
The women of van den Berg’s stories are going through some stuff. From the actress turned Bigfoot impersonator who must reassess her life’s ambition with a dying boyfriend by her side, to the young American teacher living in Paris whose husband, paranoid about recent civil unrest, one day disappears, van den Berg’s characters are at pivotal moments in their lives. While modern ‘chick lit’ might have you believing the only character worthy of a book deal is an editorial assistant trying to make it in the big city (no offense to her, by the way – I was her once), van den Berg’s women are refreshing with their ambition, knowledge, and fortitude.
The heroines of these stories are scientists, students, artists, professors, athletes. They travel and study and blow your mind with their insight. They are the women you want to stand near at the party to hear about her experience open water swimming in Madagascar, or that time she stood her ground against a mugger who tried taking an African mask she herself had stolen. These women are intelligent without being standoffish, thoughtful without being preachy, and while their circumstances may at times seem out of the ordinary – like the botanist among a group who is in search of the Loch Ness monster, or the college student whose parents both died while on an exploration in the rain forest – their emotional struggles are as real as they get.
In each of van den Berg’s eight stories, the main characters are all at significant turning points in their lives, and dealing with loss in one form of another – whether it be of a loved one or of a dream they’re forced to give up. The author succeeds most when her protagonist is left by herself – allowing her to achieve powerful moments of clarity. Van den Berg excels at examining the space that opens when a character suddenly finds a void in her life. She doesn’t let that loss define them though, rather she allows the ways in which they consider and move through each of their lives speak. So while their situations may at times seem distant to us, we never feel disconnected because of their emotional closeness to us. This enables us to develop a great respect for our author – even as her characters brave the truths we ourselves might be afraid to admit. In the story, “Still Life with Poppies,” the narrator contemplates the heroine’s next move: “It wasn’t that she wanted so badly to remain in Paris; more than anything, she was incapable of deciding, of striking in a different, unknown direction, and was frustrated by her inability to release herself from her life as easily as her husband had, a top spiraling across a flat surface.”
Do we take that leap forward or remain where we are? How long can we escape our pain before we must face it? Do we choose comfort or adventure? Though the questions may seem straightforward, when it comes to life, we all know how complicated they really are. An exceptional storyteller, van den Berg’s first book emphatically explores how women of our generation go about answering them. She writes eloquently about their insecurities without her characters coming across as whiny or people to be pitied. And while we don’t always see how things turns out for them, with the resting place van den Berg takes us to, we somehow know things are going to work out. Portraying the diversity we women too often go unnoticed for in literature, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us is a triumph debut.
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