Internal journey in a dystopian future
Fiction: Find Me, Laura van den Berg Del Rey, hbk, 288 pages, €10.99
It may be her debut novel, but it is impossible to come to Laura van den Berg's Find Me without the highest of expectations. It seems desperately unfair to the Florida-born 30-something, but this is the downside of being described as the best young writer in America by the influential website Salon in an interview that compared her work to that of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro.
Van den Berg has form though: both of her collections of short stories with their themes of loss, isolation and abandonment have garnered awards. So perhaps it's no surprise that Find Me, which also addresses such issues, has been eagerly anticipated by those in literary circles.
Happily for its author, this exploration of a near-future US which is suffering from a mysterious, and seemingly incurable, epidemic lives up to its billing.
The country has been overwhelmed by a catastrophe that has swept through it, claiming 400,000 lives. The first signs of the contagious disease are the appearance of silver blisters on the bodies of victims, followed by abrupt and comprehensive memory loss. Within a week of contracting the illness, those infected fall into a coma and die.
But some are immune to its lethal effects, despite exposure to it. Joy Jones, the 19-year-old narrator of Find Me, is one of those.
Abandoned as an infant by her mother, she grew up in a series of foster homes. Rootless, isolated and with a permanent feeling of being unwanted, Joy has numbed herself to life - and some grim memories of her childhood - through an addiction to over-the-counter medication enabled by her job as a cashier working the graveyard shift at Stop & Shop in Boston.
After learning of her immunity, she is invited to stay in a mysterious research facility in Kansas called the Hospital along with 150 others who are also resistant to the disease. She signs a 10-month contract, which puts her at the mercy of the secretive Dr Bek who runs the facility and his coterie of nurses camouflaged in hazmat suits. There, she undergoes regular blood tests and psychological examinations. Life in the Hospital is restrictive, but at first, Joy, made passive by her upbringing, accepts the tedium, until she is confronted by her past.
Before she had gone to Kansas, Joy had been given a photograph of her mother by her dying aunt. While watching a Discovery Channel programme at the Hospital, she becomes convinced that the presenter of the documentary, an underwater archaeologist living at the furthermost tip of Florida, is the woman who gave birth to her.
Not long afterwards, the Hospital inmates discover that the epidemic itself is dying and begin to rebel against their confinement. Joy seizes her chance to escape and embarks on a roadtrip across America to find her only parent.
It is this event that divides the book in two, and the second half of Find Me is arguably less engaging than the suspenseful initial chapters. Yet, such is the power of Van den Berg's prose that it feels mean-spirited to criticise the author for the change in tone, and even for a particularly improbable coincidence.
Although the novel opens with its creation of a dystopian future, don't be fooled. By the second half of Find Me, the terror of the epidemic has almost completely receded in favour of a focus on how Joy learns to finally embrace life.
Laura van den Berg has admitted that Find Me is more about Joy's interior journey than an examination of a national collapse and recovery. And it is this focus on the resilience of humans and how they can survive despite countless trauma, which makes Find Me so compelling, even if much is left unexplained. An unforgettable debut.