What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us
By Laura van den Berg
The stories in this debut collection delve deep into Laura van den Berg's quiet but unfettered imagination. Each follows a similar pattern: a woman emotionally adrift searches for herself in a world populated with mythic creatures, from the familiar Bigfoot to the little-known Mokele-Mbembe. Despite this similar pattern, each story is finely individuated through the complexities of van den Berg's characters.
The dissolution of romantic relationships is a common struggle for protagonists. In "High in the Air" a professor blames her crumbling marriage and subsequent affair on her husband's obsession with the Mishegenabeg, a creature inhabiting the furthest reaches of Lake Michigan, rather than the toll of her mother's dementia. Moving on after the death of a loved one is another popular theme, shown best in "The Rain Season" the story of a recently widowed missionary who ingratiates herself into a Congolese village to escape haunting memories of her husband's death. Van den Berg brings quiet grace to these stories, whether she is cataloging the details of her protagonists' disparate lives, or describing the literal and figurative monsters they encounter.
The intense delicacy of van den Berg's prose might be the only weakness in the collection. Hushed tones and quiet movement occasionally create distance between reader and protagonist, as is the case in the story of a struggling actress, "Where We Must Be" which suffers from a lack of immediacy. Happily, it is with the final and eponymous "What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us" that the full possibility of van den Berg's writing is realized. This story of a woman who drags her teenage daughter (the narrator, here) to Madagascar in search of nature's most beguiling creatures, finds a perfect balance between the metaphorical and the real, as the daughter is both plagued and compelled by the vast expanse of water that surrounds her. With exquisite attention to detail, van den Berg creates a fantastic world underscored with restrained gravitas—a fitting end to a lovely debut.