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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Titles similar to Find Me
Joy, 19, is locked up in the Hospital along with dozens of other inmates. They’re in extreme quarantine, tended to by a staff in full hazmat gear. They were brought to this long-abandoned psychiatric hospital in the vast emptiness of Kansas because they survived direct exposure to “the sickness,” a highly contagious disease that is rampaging across the country, killing people in the tens of thousands. It’s believed that the inmates’ blood holds the key to a cure and vaccine. But the protocols for this isolated study are awfully peculiar, their total isolation worrisome.
This reads like the beginning of a literary postpandemic or postapocalyptic tale along the lines of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, Edan Lepucki’s California (2014), and Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea (2014), each of which portrays dispossessed young women seeking sanctuary and a way forward in a devastated world. This scenario also brings to mind this season’s terrifying and tragic Ebola outbreak. But van den Berg is conducting a more internalized investigation into the complex consequences of abandonment and abuse. She is asking how one faces the tumult and tempests of life without roots or an anchor.
Left on the front steps of a hospital as a baby, Joy grows up in group and foster homes, where the inexplicable is the norm. She loses her entire eighth year—the slate rubbed blank—after the psychologist son of her first foster parents moves back home and does something unspeakable to her. When she is 13, she grows close to a gentle, slightly clairvoyant “foster brother,” Marcus, who wears Halloween masks to conceal his disfigured face. Eventually, Joy ends up living in a windowless basement apartment, working the graveyard shift at a convenience store and drinking cough syrup for a cheap high. Then the aunt she never knew she had, who is dying of the “sickness,” gives Joy an old photograph of her mother. No name, no information, only a trace resemblance.
Brooding, acutely observant, compassionate, suspicious, wistful, and wryly funny, Joy is an entrancing and sympathetic narrator through which van den Berg can channel her abiding fascination with what is submerged, hidden, lurking, lost.
On her twentieth birthday, still in the Hospital, Joy watches a Discovery Channel show, Mysteries of the Sea, featuring a “ship detective,” or underwater archaeologist based in Key West. Joy is certain that this deep-sea sleuth is the woman in the photograph. Her mother.
In the second half of the novel, Joy travels through the decimated countryside, determined to reach Key West. Perilous journeys and quixotic quests are literature’s archetypal themes, and American fiction is scored by countless cross-country treks, including a growing number of postapocalypic journeys. On Joy’s dark odyssey, she travels through eerie, poisoned landscapes, meets an eccentric couple squatting in a rotting, haunted mansion, and is nearly trampled by a stampede of people in black, their faces painted white. Joy sees that far more is wrong than the “sickness.” The climate is out of whack, and there are many intimations of further catastrophes.
Van den Berg’s enveloping novel of a plague and a seeker in an endangered world reveals what it feels like to grow up unwanted and unknown in a civilization hell-bent on self-destruction. It is also a beautifully strange, sad, and provocative inquiry into our failure to love, cherish, and protect. But ultimately, Find Me is a delving story of courage, persistence, and hope.
YA/Mature Readers: YAs with a penchant for dark, subtly speculative fiction will be captivated by Joy and her struggles for selfhood and survival in a poisoned world. —Donna Seaman
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