“Things I will never forget: my name, my made up birthday, the rattle of a train in a tunnel…Things other people will forget: where they come from, how old they are, the faces of the people they love.”
Known for her award-winning short story collections, Laura van den Berg has been hailed as the “best young writer in America”, and her first foray into novel writing certainly leaves a mark. Split into two halves, Find Me starts as an unnerving dystopian tale and evolves into a haunting exploration of the threads that connect people and the memories that shape us.
‘Book 1’ begins with a quote from Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. “In a place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment”. It doesn’t mean much until you’ve read the first half of van den Berg’s story, which involves a young woman called Joy who’s a patient at a secretive hospital where daily tests are performed and the patients aren’t permitted to leave.
Outside the hospital a sickness has swept the country, a deadly pandemic that begins with silver blisters and memory loss and ends in death. For the first time in her life, Joy is one of the fortunate ones: she’s immune to the contagion. Separated from the outside world, Joy spends her days with the other ‘resistant’ patients, waiting for the doctors to find a genetic abnormality in their blood that could lead to a cure. She endures the medical tests, stares out the window, watches passing pilgrims, performs her chores, sleeps, and does it all again the next day, all the while wondering what’s happening to the people who weren’t so lucky.The second part of the book centres on Joy outside of the hospital, as she ventures into the changed world in search of her birth mother, who abandoned her as a baby. It’s here that van den Berg’s novel veers in an entirely different direction, leaving behind the claustrophobic pandemic tale to focus on Joy’s journey of self-discovery and the traumatic memories that hold her back mentally and propel her forward physically. Whether it’s her Donny Darko-esque companion, Marcus, or the bus that never takes its passengers where they want to go, there’s a trippy quality to the story that clouds everything in a surreal, dreamlike filter.
Whilst it’s liberating to venture out into the real world with Joy, exploring the aftermath of the sickness and the strange shadow hanging over America, it’s that suffocating, secretive environment of the hospital that makes Find Me such an unusual and eerie read. As soon as the story moves away from that one building, it loses focus, reading like one long hallucination. At points it’s difficult to tell what’s real and what’s not – what actually happened and what’s merely a figment of Joy’s imagination. Perhaps this ambiguity reflects the nature of memories, of how they change and blur, disappear and reappear, almost with a will of their own.
Despite the fact that the first half of the novel is much more engaging than the second half, Laura van den Berg’s writing is superb, both delicate and jarring as it puts a new spin on the dystopian theme. The book never loses momentum but the end feels rushed, as if it needed an extra chapter or two to give both the character and the reader some closure. If you enjoyed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, this should be next on your apocalypse book list.