In her debut novel, “Find Me,” author Laura van den Berg tells the story of a lost woman who discovers that she has something to live for just as her world begins to fall apart.
When we first meet Joy Jones, she’s a patient in a quarantine hospital in “middle-of-nowhere” Kansas, being studied for her resistance to a virulent disease that’s sweeping the country. The primary symptoms are profound memory loss and the emergence of silvery blisters on the skin, followed by a “sudden neurological collapse” and ultimately death. In just three months, Joy reveals, the disease has claimed 200,000 lives.
“[Y]our primary role in the Hospital,” a hospital official tells her, “is to simply exist, along with daily examinations, to ensure there are no signs of infection.”
The 10-story hospital operates like something out of Huxley or Orwell. Patients are divvied up into different floor groups and given menial chores to keep them busy, like doing laundry, cleaning the cafeteria, or managing the library. They are attended to by nurses in bulky hazmat suits who go by code names like “N5” and wear masks that obscure their faces.
Hospital chief “Dr. Bek is the only member of the Hospital staff with a proper name and a fully visible face,” Joy notes. “[H]e wants the patients to believe he is the only one we can trust with our lives.” An unseen pathologist periodically delivers encouraging platitudes from a loudspeaker. “YOU ARE WELL, YOU HAVE ALWAYS BEEN WELL, YOU WILL ALWAYS BE WELL,” he chants.
Joy knows it isn’t true — every so often a failing patient is taken to the 10th floor of the hospital to die. And when news reports on the common room television seem to indicate that the pandemic is ebbing, the situation in the hospital begins to degrade. The patients threaten to revolt, hoping to rejoin the world against the wishes of Dr. Bek. But Joy, who had a hard childhood bouncing between foster families and group homes, has nothing to go back to.
“I worked as a cashier at a twenty-four hour Stop & Shop, graveyard shift. My basement apartment had no windows. I slept through the daylight hours and never left for work without drinking at least four ounces of cough syrup.”
By sheer chance, Joy discovers that the long lost biological mother who gave her up as an infant is working as an underwater archeologist in Florida. And so she resolves to escape the hospital to track her down.
What follows is a cross-country adventure through the wrecked landscape of a wounded country, and van den Berg deftly parallels these tortured wanderings with flashbacks to Joy’s hard upbringing. The bleakness she encounters hardly fazes her. “I’ve grown up knowing the world is fragile,” she says. “No one needs to tell me that.”
Throughout “Find Me,” we see Joy tossed about like a leaf on the wind, helpless as others exert their power over her and unable to find her own. On the road, the buses she hops seem to move about capriciously, and in her flashbacks, we see her assaulted by her fellow orphans or outright violated by an older foster sibling, a troubled psychologist who subjects her to odd tests that are the product of his own disordered thinking. “I waited for that feeling of power to come alive inside me,” she says. “I didn’t understand that it had to be claimed.”
Ultimately, she discovers that she must reckon with her past in order to take control of her future. “[T]here is a part of our story that we do not know how to tell ourselves and we will away its existence for so long that finally our brain agrees to a trade: I will let you forget this, but you will never feel whole.” Joy realizes she can no longer wait to be found; it’s up to her to reach out for what she wants.
In “Find Me,” van den Berg depicts a life slowly coming into focus —
it’s blurry and impressionistic at times, sometimes deliriously scattered. But out of the fog of memory and the haze of drugs emerges a sense of clarity that’s deep and moving and real.
from Boston, can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelp