Book Review: ‘Find Me’ by Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg’s new novel is a perfectly poised psychological puzzle.

by Kinzy Janssen

Swirling at the center of the dreamlike, epidemic-wracked world Laura van den Berg has created in Find Me, there is Joy Jones, a 20-year-old woman oscillating between her will to remember and connect, and her unconscious urge to forget and numb.

Released February 17, Find Me balances equal parts heart (loneliness, guilt, love) and brain (psychology, the unconscious, the placebo effect). The novel is divided into Book I and Book II, both of which Joy narrates.

Book I comes to life in a special Hospital in Kansas where Joy is isolated from a memory-wiping epidemic that has killed more than half a million Americans already, and is claiming more lives to suicide. Locked in the Hospital with 80 possibly-immune patients like her, there is only waiting. Time slows; patients touch the windows, imagining life on the outside and trying to beat the boredom inside. Against this backdrop, we begin to see flashes of Joy’s turbulent past. We learn Joy’s mother abandoned her as a baby and that afterward Joy spent an unhappy childhood in the care of foster parents, and her late teens in a dead-end grocery store job, anesthetizing herself with cough syrup.

As we learn simultaneously about the mysterious inner worlds of the Hospital and Joy’s mind, the chapters creep forward like frost on a window; before you know it, a beautiful, icy pattern has emerged. Van den Berg conjures this ethereal world with her unflinching images and metaphors, her cold landscapes, and her spare-yet-rich sentences:

“In the end, sight betrays them. They see things that aren’t there,” Van den Berg writes about the patients of the epidemic. “The once solid world dissolves like a brick of sugar left out in the rain…They lie rigid under the sheets, a corpse in the making, somewhere between conscious and not.”

A mere dozen words, shaped by Van den Berg, can raise hairs on the back of your neck.

Book II sets a faster pace as we follow Joy’s escape from the Hospital and her meandering bus journey to Shadow Key, Florida to find her birth mother. Along the way, Joy encounters a whirring reel of people: bus drivers who disappear, hotel keepers who steal, roving mobs who are either destructive or benevolent (or both), a fragile woman with angel wings, people who offer her shelter – and drugs. After Book I, which unfolded within the physical constraints of the Hospital, Book II feels wild and ranging and even more surreal. To use Joy’s description of a cough syrup haze, it’s as if “the world is a wet canvas someone can’t stop touching.”

Toward the end, we must confront the irony of Joy’s survival. While her memory is technically intact, she continues to suppress the chilling episodes of experimental sexual and psychological abuse she suffered behind closed doors in her childhood. If she had succumbed to the disease, those memories would have been erased…but the merciless tradeoff would have been death.

Joy’s yearning is, ultimately, infectious. We want so badly for her to banish the ghosts of abuse and to figure out what kind of person she wants to be. As she gets closer and closer to Shadow Key, the island her birth mother (a shipwreck archaeologist) supposedly lives on, we sense her nearing herself, too. There’s a gargantuan amount of tension built up at the end, like the previous pages were turns on a windup doll. It is as if, in the last two pages, Van den Berg lets go of her hold on the key, and the novel winds itself down in a breathless, beautiful scene where Joy, too, lets go. In the very last scene, ambiguous pronouns leave plenty of space for interpretation. Like with a poem, I love them all equally.

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Kinzy Janssen is The Riveter‘s associate editor. You can follow her @KinzyJ.