In the last days of modern civilization, a young orphan from Boston makes her way across the dangerous wastelands of America. This is not an adventure for her.
Post-apocalyptic novels can bend in a lot of directions—in the past decade we've seen the murky emotional depths of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the political metaphor of World War Z by Max Brooks, and the fragile state of fear of Edan Lepucki's California. This debut novel by acclaimed short story writer van den Berg (The Isle of Youth, 2013, etc.) tends to lean much closer to the realms of literary fiction with its complex psychology. Our heroine is the ironically named Joy Jones, an emotionally barren young woman with no family or friends who now slogs at a day job under the influence of a soul-deadening amount of cough syrup. She's not the most ebullient spirit even before a modern plague strikes, killing half the world. She’s given to saying things like, “I wonder if I will ever know what it’s like to feel at peace,” and “No one will ever write a Wikipedia page for me.” As hundreds of thousands of victims succumb, Joy is taken to a hospital complex in Kansas where she's subjected to strange tests both medical and psychological, has emotionless sex with her roommate and recoils at the deaths of twin boys. While at the hospital, Joy learns that her long-lost mother is an underwater archaeologist featured in a series of television documentaries that she watches like they are her only lifeline. The remainder of the book covers Joy’s trek to find her mother, traveling in the company of Marcus, a boy who shared one of her many foster homes. Van den Berg’s writing is curiously beautiful, and her portrayals can also be disarmingly sensitive, as if we might break this girl just by reading about her. “I’ve grown up knowing the world is fragile,” she says. “No one needs to tell me that.”
A sad story about a sad girl slouching toward the end of the world.