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'State of Paradise' effortlessly blends the commonplace and the extraordinary

Laura van den Berg's State of Paradise is a wonderful, enigmatic novel that effortlessly blends the commonplace and the extraordinary. A true-to-life narrative about a woman learning to navigate the world after a strange pandemic, dealing with her work as a ghostwriter, and experiencing a devastating storm in her native Florida, this novel is also a surreal exploration of memory and the lingering effects of trauma seasoned with elements of mystery as well as science fiction.

A nameless woman and her husband are living with the woman's mother in a small Florida town in the aftermath of a strange pandemic that left some people with odd dreams — and changed the color of the woman's sister. The woman worries about her work as a ghostwriter for a bestselling author as well as about sinkholes and the way people are going missing. Meanwhile, her husband works on a nonfiction book about pilgrimages, and runs a lot, becoming a bit of a celebrity in the small town.

But these concerns aren't the only ones that occupy the woman's thoughts. There is much more right under the surface: an eerie virtual reality headset given out by the government that has people hooked and ignoring the real world, her mother's secrets, the haunting memories of her time spent in a psychiatric 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 bad storm. When she finally reappears, she speaks of a different dimension. The virtual reality headset, her sister's behavior, the changes in her ghostwriting work, and people going missing might be related, and the woman will do her best to try to figure out how.


State of Paradise is an intricate, bizarre novel that's 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 will come next is part of its charm. Every unexceptional event feels more important because it could be the start of something unexpected, something perhaps a little unsettling. For example, there's a scene in which a man asks the woman if she has some ChapStick. Instead of digging into her pocket or her purse, she slides two fingers into her belly button and pulls a stick of it she's been keeping there. Strange and maybe a little funny, sure, but also a stark reminder that sometimes strange things are brewing right underneath the surface of whatever we think reality is.

"We are all existing in the cradle of a great narrative design." That's a line the woman learned ghostwriting novels, but it's also a line that shows van den Berg is aware of narrative design, and that she's purposefully blurring the imaginary lines between genres. State of Paradise exists in the blurry space, constantly jumping between something as normal as cats lounging on the grass to the possibility of the woman's dead father contacting her sister while she's using the virtual reality equipment. The list of things like that is long, and every single one of those things helps make this novel more engaging, more interesting, more immersive and mysterious.

Van den Berg doesn't shy away from politics, but she also pays attention to the things that make Florida the weird place it is — the weather, the heat, the sinkholes. Her witty observations are more than enough to carry the novel, but they are far from being the only thing this playful narrative has to offer. The woman's 10-month stint in a psychiatric hospital is a great example of the story's richness. Tales of suicide attempts, struggles with alcoholism, and the treatment she received while in "the Institution" contrast with the woman's current life but, while things are much better, they are still strange and the ghosts of the past are never too far away. Also, those mental health struggles aren't presented for shock value; they offer an honest glimpse into what many people go through in a way that grants the novel a sense of authenticity while also increasing representation in fiction for all of those who have struggled with the same things.

With exquisite prose, smart lines on every page, a building sense of growing strangeness tinged with dread, and surprises all the way to the end, State of Paradise might be van den Berg's best novel so far -- and that's saying a lot. A narrative that constantly feels like its dancing on the border between fiction and nonfiction despite all the weirdness it contains, this book is at once an adventure and a treat, a deep study of Florida's psychogeography and a creepy story about ghosts, missing people, 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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