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.