THE ISLE OF YOUTH. By Laura Van Den Berg. FSG. 242 pages. $14.
A woman slips out of her honeymoon suite, walks down to the shore, and stuffs her mouth full of sand. She thinks, "as long as I could remember, I'd felt an emptiness where other things were supposed to be." A gang of evangelical teenage cousins starts robbing banks, for one reason: "they are a group of people committed to making life as hard as possible."
Another woman lets her twin sister lure her to Florida. Trouble ensues, as she might have predicted, knowing her sister to be "a shape-shifter, someone who bounced from one life to the next like a drug-resistant virus changing hosts."
All the stories in Laura van den Berg's irresistible second collection, "The Isle of Youth," feature young women speakers and protagonists who are driven toward danger or mystery. In crisp, scrupulous sentences, they narrate their own lives as if watching from the sidelines.
Most of Van den Berg's stories pivot on secrets and the lies characters tell themselves and each other. In the opening story, "I Looked for You, I Called Your Name," a honeymoon trip to Patagonia gets off to a bad start when the plane crashes and the groom elbows (and breaks) his wife's nose. When asked how she likes married life, the narrator uses words like "confusing." All her secret doubts come rushing in through the chink opened by the accident. She remembers once seeing an X-ray of a human heart and being "alarmed by its smallness, its translucence." It is, she realizes, "a thing we ask too much of."
Another married couple try the geographical cure in "Acrobat." They have come to Paris to "work on" their marriage (a thought that seems awful to the narrating wife, as if "keeping a marriage together were like laying pipe or digging a ditch"). Van den Berg is expert at introducing into ordinary situations - break ups, even in Paris, aren't so far-fetched - a sense of disorienting strangeness. When the narrator's husband leaves her to catch a plane out of Paris, she follows a trio of mimes around the city and eventually gets into white face herself. Masked and in recess from her real self, the narrator can tell any lie, scream if she wants to, and put off worrying about whether she's losing her mind or finding it.
The volume closes with its three most powerful stories, all variations on the theme of vanishing. In "The Great Escape," the daughter half of a mother-daughter magic act discovers that her life history has been fabricated with smoke and mirrors. Her question to her mother, when the truth comes out: "Why didn't you just keep lying?"
Lee, the narrator of "Antarctica," goes to "a continent ruled by no one" to collect the remains of her brother, a seismologist who died in an explosion at the research station there. The story is deeply engaged with faults and ruptures. Van den Berg's nonlinear narration tracks the secrets that separated Lee from her brother while he lived and the accrued reasons why she now feels she's "living someone else's life."
In the title story, a narrator is persuaded to do that very thing: live someone else's life. When Sylvia, the narrator's twin sister, calls for emergency help, she rushes to Florida for reasons of her own: the narrator and her husband are "on the brink," and she's "looking for something to take a chance on." They agree to change identities so that Sylvia can take a vacation to the "Isle of Youth" with her married lover. Sylvia warns her, "Maybe you'll like my life so much you won't want to give it back." What's not to like? Some messy drug business, a couple of hit men, a medicine cabinet full of pills: "The Isle of Youth" shares a zany premise and goofball complications with other stories in its volume. Identity, once again, proves the greatest mystery.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches at the College of Charleston.