Reviewed by Matthia Dempsey
Laura van den Berg has particular skill in capturing the strangeness that can come at times—the sense of being a stranger to your own life and the world. For many of the women in her stories this feeling is the result of a specific grief, but it also confronts characters who cannot point to an easily identified cause.
In ‘Up High in the Air’ a woman who finds herself being unfaithful to her husband and ‘taking her life apart piece by piece’ captures this strangeness when she describes her ideas about what to do next as being ‘at once intensely possible and as intangible as fog’. In ‘Still Life With Poppies’ a woman whose husband has left her and disappeared struggles to adjust: ‘Her marriage ending was not a shock. It was the spectacular strangeness of it that had left her staggering. She had been an ordinary person with an uneven marriage and a good job and the occasional adventure, unprepared for this life of peculiar and slippery grief.’
Van den Berg’s protagonists are women who have found themselves in lives they don’t want and in cities or countries they don’t belong, from Scotland to France, the Congo and Madagascar. Some have left a former existence willingly and others have had new cities, countries and responsibilities bequeathed them by circumstances such as death, separation or the will of another. Some know exactly how they ended up where they are, others try painfully to puzzle it out.
Peculiar and slippery grief is everywhere here. In the opening story a would-be actress jokes about channelling personal pain into her performances. ‘Only it turned out that nobody wanted to see real suffering, that no director or casting agent wanted the kind of pain that would, even for an instant, make anyone want to turn away.’ Van den Berg’s sights are fixed firmly on this kind of pain. In ‘Goodbye My Loveds’, a young woman who has taken on the care of her younger brother after the death of their parents wants to tell someone how ‘sometimes it felt like we were the only people out there with losses so raw and gaping’, but senses the woman she is talking to will not want to hear it.
The story brings us close to heartbreak, not because of the young woman’s grief, but because her experience is that universal one of responsibility versus freedom, writ large: ‘It still came on every now and then when I watched Denver toss in his sleep or stare too long at his map of South America—nothing more than a shudder of strange, liquid energy, but sometimes I had to stand outside the apartment until it passed, the air sweeping into me like some kind of cleansing light, pushing out thoughts about voices and solitude and the possibility of living a different kind of life’.
In this, my favourite story, and in others, van den Berg acknowledges not just the way grief can change a person, but ‘the way one life can collapse into another and different people can stir within the same body, like bats thrashing inside a secret hollow’.
Read in one sitting, the narratives in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us can blend together. Themes overlap and images echo across stories. A character in the opening tale dreams of a time when the world was nothing but water, and in the closing story a woman gives her daughter a postcard with the eponymous description of the world without any water left. Husbands and partners in these narratives are dead, missing, have left or been left.
Mythical creatures recur too, from the aspiring actress who dresses up as Big Foot and scares hikers who have paid for the privilege; to the narrator of ‘The Rain Season’ who watches locals in the Congo draw pictures of the fearful Mokole-mbembe in the dirt; in ‘Up High in the Air’ the narrator’s husband becomes obsessed with the fabled mishegenabeg of Lake Michigan; and in ‘Inverness’ a group of scientists search for the Loch Ness Monster. The search for mythical and not-so-mythical creatures—scientific adventure is a recurring thread too—provides a sense of purpose for many of the secondary characters in these stories, but the women themselves are usually at a painful loss for anything more than survival to give their lives direction.
Early in the book a character says she feels as if there is ‘no room for anything except staying above the tide’ and the phrase seems to apply to each of these women; for tales so packed with myth and exoticism, there is little sense of wonder. It’s not that these women aren’t searching for precisely that, and in some stories there are flashes—the thrill of a watching a meteor shower, delight in watching a tropical fish, bought on impulse—it’s just that through grief or, it sometimes seems, an inability to look in the right places, these moments of wonder are few. Instead, in personal relationships we hear ‘the truth’ about ex-husbands’ irritating qualities, but little about what made them loved in the beginning. In exotic locations we frequently find the mundane. In the end, it makes for bleak reading.
The modern world can be this strange and stark, where endless freedom of choice still runs up against a reality in which people die, people leave, wars break out. Van den Berg captures that disconnect: her women are surviving the big tragedies of their lives while second-guessing the steps along the way, trying to work out where they’ve taken the wrong path, with a sense that if they could just stop a moment they could work out how to get back on track.
This is where the strangeness comes from—the gap between a life where an endless ability to choose gives the illusion of control, and a concurrent life in which the big events are uncontrollable. How to find meaning? Van den Berg gets this messy struggle onto the page. The result is a collection of stories where ‘strangeness is everywhere and everything makes you tired in the end’.