What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us

Laura Van den Berg

What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us
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What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us

Laura Van den Berg

The stories in Laura van den Berg’s rich and inventive debut illuminate the intersection of the mythic and the mundane. A failed actress takes a job as a Bigfoot impersonator. A grieving missionary becomes obsessed with a creature rumoured to live in the forests of the Congo. And, in the title story, a young woman travelling with her scientist mother in Madagascar confronts her burgeoning sexuality and her dream of becoming a long-distance swimmer. Rendered with grace and precision, this breathtaking collection is narrated by women yearning for absolution, for solace, for the flash of extraordinary that will forever alter their lives.

Review

US author Laura van den Berg’s debut collection of stories is described on the cover by Booklist as ‘Stunning, desolate and unforgettable’. In this era of easy praise and authors doing favours to each other by writing cover ‘blurbs’ for each other’s books, it could be easy to overlook this, but those four words are incredibly accurate.

Van den Berg’s characters are women at junctures in their lives. In the first story, ‘Where We Must Be’, a 26-year-old woman who intended to be an actress finds herself living in a bungalow and acting the part of Bigfoot in a local theme park. She begins a relationship with a man living opposite her, and circumstances conspire so that each confides in the other in a way they would never have imagined. In ‘Up High in the Air’, a professor of etymology has an affair with a student while her husband becomes increasingly distant and obsessive, and her mother, living interstate, seems to be suffering from dementia. ‘I can apologize to you in fifteen different languages,’ the professor tells her husband when he becomes aware of the affair. ‘I’m not interested in the languages you speak anymore,’ he replies. In the title story, a young woman accompanies her mother on an expedition to Madagascar to investigate the decrease in the lemur population. This piece is a wonderful combination of a coming-of-age story, an exploration of the mother/daughter relationship and an exploration of the daughter’s burgeoning sexuality.

Van den Berg’s women are sensitive and intelligent. The way she weaves details of the natural world with her characters’ pscyhology is seamless. She has been compared to Lorrie Moore, and in some ways her characters could be regarded as middle-class versions of Wells Tower’s misfits. The stories are long enough to be entirely satisfying and the characters will remain with the reader.

Annie Condon is a published short-story writer and a convenor of a Readings Australian Book Club.

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