PROBE INTO MEMORY: Find Me by Laura van den Berg

Find Me CoverFind Me by Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2015

“The sickness” hits the Unites States leaving its victims covered in silvery scabs, bereft of their memories, and fated with an unavoidable death. 19-year-old Joy finds herself swept away to an isolated hospital along with others who have been exposed to the fast-spreading disease. Here, Joy becomes intimate with a widower, endeared by orphaned twin boys, and distracted by the mysterious pilgrims who stand vigil outside the hospital.

Unlike other dystopian novels (i.e. Children of Men, World War Z), this story is not rife with action or a rush to find a cure. In fact, most of the scientific elements fizzle away on a back burner. The protagonist has a lot of time on her hands. She gets lost in the entanglements of her memories and her imaginings. Joy’s fears, doubts, and transient lifestyle make her the ideal, unreliable first-person narrator. You feel as vulnerable and as unknowing as Joy.

Van den Berg uses poetic phrases and gorgeous water imagery that lulls you. Her words leave you aimlessly drifting along and waiting for meaning along with Joy. The story can be summed up by one of Joy’s powerful lines:

“I feel like my life is a tent someone has folded up and carried away.”

Being an orphan, Joy never had a permanent home or family life. She drifted from place to place, always finding herself lost—her future a dark blur. The language sets the mood and helps you delve into the psyche of a lonely woman in an unravelling world.

The second part of the book meanders into a new direction, possibly leaving you confused or unsatisfied. Other characters materialize along the way, but never long enough to leave their imprint on you. Like the memories of the afflicted, the relationships Joy forms with others come and go too quickly. The final scene is fitting, but may leave you with more questions than answers.

I recommend this book for readers who appreciate the intricacies of language, but not to those who want a tight plot and a clear resolution at the end of the novel.

AN EXAMINATION OF COLLECTIVE GUILT: J by Howard Jacobson


J: a Novel by Howard Jacobson
Howard-Jacobson-J-cover Crown Publishing, 2014.
352 pages, 25.00$

Howard Jacobson creates a dystopian, near-future society in his latest novel, J. Instead of focusing on the destruction of the environment or on technological advancements, he zooms in on the dark side of humanity. In fact, Howard’s description of this world remains intentionally vague, so the reader can focus on the main theme of collective guilt.

The author molds his protagonist Kevern Cohen as a sympathetic man plagued with paranoia (manifested through OCD tendencies). We like this quirky recluse who claims “that his dissatisfactions were no bigger than most men’s—loneliness and sense lost direction (or was it a sense of never having had direction?)—of early-onset middle age.” Even though he tries to remain unnoticed, we sense that Kevern is different and somehow linked to the nebulous events that unfolded in the late 2010s: WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.

We cheer him on when a mysterious stranger unites him with Ailinn Solomons, “a fine-looking girl, delicately strung, easy to hurt despite the dangerous thicket of hair.” We watch their delicate, intense relationship blossom. Jacobson’s keen observations about the interactions of men and women during the early days of coupling lures us deeper into the characters’ lives. After all, “when the love thing is upon you there’s no one who can break you up.” Is there truly no one or nothing that can tear them apart?

The secret that link the characters to WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED always looms at the back of our minds. There is a larger force at work in this story.  Readers may become annoyed with the continuous circular motion that keeps bringing us back to this obscure incident, a seemingly modern-day Holocaust. Several matters are implied in J but never spelled out. Still, scenes unfold in an unsurprising way. After such an introspective, character-driven first part, the second half of the book was anticlimactic and unsatisfying. While Jacobson makes us ponder how we repeat our past, wicked actions even though we try to suppress them, the story feels stiff. It lacks heart, in the end.

*I received an ARC  in exchange for an honest review.*