Book review 'State of Paradise' by Laura van den Berg: NPR

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Laura van den Berg's State of Paradise is a beautiful, enigmatic novel that effortlessly blends the mundane and the extraordinary. A true story about a woman learning to navigate the world after a strange pandemic, juggling her job as a ghostwriter, and navigating a devastating storm in her native Florida, this novel is also a surreal exploration of memory and the lingering effects of trauma, spiced with elements of mystery and science fiction.

An unnamed woman and her husband are living with the woman’s mother in a small Florida town after a strange pandemic has left some people with strange dreams—and changed the woman’s sister’s color. The woman worries about her job as a ghostwriter for a bestselling author, as well as sinkholes and the way people disappear. Meanwhile, her husband is working on a nonfiction book about pilgrimages and running a lot, becoming a bit of a celebrity in the town.

But these worries aren’t the only ones on the woman’s mind. There’s much more beneath the surface: a creepy virtual reality headset distributed by the government that makes people addicted and ignore the real world, her mother’s secrets, the haunting memories of her time in a mental hospital, and her belly button, which is getting deeper and deeper every day. To make matters worse, the woman’s sister goes missing during a heavy storm. When she finally resurfaces, she talks about another dimension. The virtual reality headset, her sister’s behavior, the changes in her ghostwriting work, and the disappearances could all be connected, and the woman will do her best to find out how.

State of Paradise is a complex, bizarre novel that is much more than the sum of its parts. Van den Berg is always in control, but readers will often feel a little lost in the best way possible. This is an unpredictable story, and not knowing what’s going to happen is part of the charm. Every inconspicuous event feels more significant because it could be the start of something unexpected, something perhaps a little unsettling. There’s a scene, for example, where a man asks the woman if she has any ChapStick. Instead of digging in her pocket or purse, she slides two fingers into her belly button and pulls out a stick she’s been keeping there. Strange and maybe a little funny, sure, but also a stark reminder that sometimes strange things are brewing just beneath the surface of what we think is reality.

“We all live in the cradle of great narrative design.” The woman learned that boundary when she was a ghostwriter for novels, but it is also a boundary that shows that Van den Berg understands narrative design and that she deliberately blurs the imaginary boundaries between genres. State of Paradise exists in the hazy space, constantly jumping between something as normal as cats lying on the grass and the possibility that the woman's deceased father is contacting her sister while using the virtual reality equipment. The list of such things is long, and each of them helps to make this novel more compelling, more interesting, more compelling, more mysterious.

Van den Berg doesn’t shy away from politics, but she also pays attention to the things that make Florida the strange place it is: the weather, the heat, the sinkholes. Her witty observations are more than enough to carry the novel, but they’re far from the only thing this playful tale has to offer. The woman’s 10-month stint in a psychiatric hospital is a great example of the richness of the story. Stories of suicide attempts, struggles with alcoholism, and the treatment she received while in “the institution” contrast with the woman’s present life, but while things are much better, they’re still strange, and the ghosts of the past are never far away. Nor are these mental health struggles presented for shock value; they offer an honest glimpse into what many people go through in a way that gives the novel a sense of authenticity while also expanding the representation in fiction for anyone who has struggled with the same things.

With exquisite prose, clever lines on every page, a growing sense of strangeness tinged with dread, and surprises all the way to the end, State of Paradise is perhaps Van den Berg's best novel to date — and that's saying something. A story that constantly feels as if it's dancing on the edge between fiction and nonfiction, despite all the strangeness it contains, this book is both an adventure and a treat, a deep study of Florida's psychogeography and a creepy tale of ghosts, missing persons, cults, and technology. Don't miss it.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer, and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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