Fiction Reviews

Find Me

(2015) Laura van den Berg, Del Rey, £12.99, hrdbk, 282pp, ISBN 978-1-785-03132-8


Ignore the blurb describing this as a post-apocalyptic work as it is nothing of the sort. Dystopian, yes, but apocalyptic no. Though many are devastated by events, other characters carry on their lives as if nothing has changed

A terrible new disease sweeps across the US, causing its victims to erupt in blisters and to lose all memories within weeks before dying. Not everyone is affected but its impact causes many people to plunge into depression and suicidal despair. Others seem to carry on as normal, working, stealing, and watching TV. The twins are obsessed with the Discovery Channel, and dig a tunnel to a freedom and adventure they will never know.

The heroine, ironically named Joy, as she experiences so little of it is an immune orphan girl, given to petty theft, self-harming, and addiction to medical cough syrups. For the first half of the book she finds herself taken to be a test subject for a mysterious Svengali-like psychiatrist who wants to study her and others to understand their immunity. He takes his belief in the power of positive thinking to cult-messiah-like levels. He is sympathetic to Joy though, allowing her to sit with Marcus as he dies. The other patients are not allowed near the rooms where the plague patients are isolated in their final days.

Joy gets on quite well with all the other test subjects including twin brothers Hell bent on escape (they get out only to freeze to death outside), and Joy has a love affair with a masks obsessed youth called Marcus who is one of the last to die of the mysterious virus. The Doctor doesn’t tell the patients that the disease has now largely run its course, being replaced by a new one in which people commit suicide for no apparent reasons. He sees Joy as the source of a cure, but believes the disease can be defeated by will-power alone. Characters are frequently given tests of what they remember about their lives.

Joy’s discovery of an old photo of her Mum and learning that she is a still-living famous marine biologist sets Joy on her own escape bid. The problem is that her escape and the subsequent road trip that dominates the second half of the book is rather too easy compared to the perils the twins faced. Joy meets various eccentrics including a hotel porter who steals from guests, which Joy assists him in until he becomes a potential sex pest and a boy who strikes Joy a being just like Marcus. Before long he virtually is Marcus resurrected and the earlier death is simply forgotten as if it was a huge emotional continuity error.

Another strange character of some merit is the survivalist who discovers the bodies of the twins and moves into the hospital clinic in a state of remorse for not having been able to save either of them. He offers Joy some advice for surviving in the outside World, but she ignores most of it without too much of a problem.

Joy is a terrific character, a girl heavily laden in despair trying to self-identify, a quest through her own depression with her hopes pinned on her mum and the surrogate substitute Marcus.

The finale tries wrapping up many minor loose ends but leaves the longed for meeting of mother and estranged daughter totally unaddressed, though Joy does locate her Mum.

The book starts out well, but actually forgets its direction, which given its subject matter seems to be saying something, but its lack of real closure left me a little cheated.

Minor characters are often fascinating but cruelly under-used. Joy’s cult-leader doctor is quite sinister until revealed to be quite a pathetic helpless figure. Then there is the stranger who finds the bodies of the twins and moves into the clinic with Joy and the others as an act of penance for not being able to save the boys. The outsider is a survivalist who Joy gets advice from for use in her own escape only to then fail to use most of what he teaches her.

Much time is taken up with meandering Greyhound bus rides while the enigmatic mother is all to remote and under-used.

The endless mantras against the great forgetting are poetic, and ultimately help induce the sadness as many memories we hold on to centre on loss and regret. I never felt I had ultimately found Joy by the close of the story.

Arthur Chappell

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