I have always admitted to the fact that for me, short stories are a little more important than the novel. I am aware that there are literary greats who at one point mastered the form so well, that everything written by anyone after only got compared and perhaps looked pale when done so. There are also times an author comes along and literally makes you wonder about the most amazing genius he or she possesses when penning a short story and perhaps for me after Munro, there is now Laura van den Berg with her dazzling collection of stories, “The Isle of Youth”.
“The Isle of Youth” is mainly about women and their lives. It is about the angry women, the quiet women, and the women who just want to lead uncomplicated lives, which is never the case with them. I think what struck me the most in these stories besides the language, was the strong characterization of both – the men (who obviously are in the background and yet play a vital role) and the women, whose every act and move is monitored, giving the reader the much needed understanding of the why and the how.
Every story in this collection speaks for itself. From the first story in the collection, “I Looked for You, I Called Your Name” with honeymooners’ crash landing in Patagonia to the title story, right at the end, van den Berg will dazzle you with her characteristic eye for detail and landscape of emotions used.
The first story is about the woman discovering her husband’s personality and in the wake of that, her relationship is riddled with doubt and she also begins to understand herself. The nature of the setting, Patagonia in this case also lends to the fragility of the story. For me, what worked the most was the sudden bleakness you are witness to throughout the stories and yet somewhere down the line, there is the underlined hope that is subtle and exquisitely written about.
My favourite story in the collection is, “Opa-Locka” about twin sisters, who are detectives and are entwined in people’s lives, causing unnecessary complications. They discover nothing and leave trails in form of objects and amidst all of this; they are confronted by their father’s criminal past. Why is it my favourite story? Because of the sheer force used to tell this tale. Van den Berg has used all her writing charm according to me in this one. It is that good.
The stories are full of wonder and charm. The women are weak, they are strong, they love and sometimes they also discard their emotions, to make sense of the real world. The stories will have you not look away from the book, till you are done with the collection. They are perfectly structured, coherent and magical. There is no sugar coating and nothing that is saccharine sweet. They are the way life is to a large extent and that is what makes them so readable.