The lure of escape beckons, seduces and often overpowers us. Joy, the 19-year-old protagonist of Laura Van Den Berg’s new novel, practically embodies the idea, whether she’s fleeing foster homes or disconnecting from life via cough-medicine highs.
When Find Me opens, Joy has seized the opportunity to escape anew, this time from a United States beleaguered by a sickness that erases people’s memories before turning them silver and swiftly taking their lives. Van Den Berg’s set-up, coming on the heels of fears over Ebola outbreaks, is topical and intriguing.
Already exposed but uninfected, Joy agrees to be sequestered with other survivors in an isolated Kansas hospital for 10 months, which allows Van Den Berg to place Joy in an inescapable situation. The hospital is not entirely uncomfortable at first and certainly not foreign to her. “What kind of upbringing does it take,” Joy thinks, “for any part of being hospitalized in the middle of nowhere during an epidemic of historic proportions to feel at all familiar?”
Early in the novel details of Joy’s background are unclear, but she will be forced to uncover secrets. And though at first she seeks escapes within the hospital — trysts with fellow patient Louis and visits to the library, which she imagines contains “a portal to a place that is separate” — when these coping strategies crumble, she discovers a way to break back into the outside world.
Van Den Berg is also breaking out in Find Me, her first novel after finding success with two story collections, What The World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. The beginning chapters are perfectly terse, written with a brisk pace and controlled leaps that provide just enough information to grab hold of you and leave you wanting more. They could thrive as separate, complete short stories, which doesn’t hamper the novel at all. Joy’s battered-yet-tough first-person narration is strong enough to carry it forward.
But Van Den Berg isn’t shy about escaping her initial storyline. The change is welcome when Joy sneaks away from the hospital, into the unknown wilderness of Kansas and the post-epidemic world. She and the novel adopt a new purpose — they head to Florida to find Joy’s mother, who abandoned her as a newborn — and an entirely different sort of story emerges.
The details are determinedly grittier, and Joy’s life on the road is increasingly woven with bizarre dream states and blurred reality. Unfortunately, the narrative also gets a bit murky, lost inside itself much like Joy as she veers off course and seemingly forgets her mother. Pinned to this goal and the physical journey from Kansas to Florida, the plot at times feels thin and labored, craving more firm guidance.
Find Me rejects a sharply defined ending, so forget resolution. Instead, the novel almost dares readers to escape into this weighty, dark world, where everything has unraveled and all the rules have changed, and see just what they can make of its rich emptiness.
Christine Thomas is a writer in Hawaii.