Remember the first page of your high school English-lit textbook, where, circa 600 AD, Beowulf dukes it out with swamp-thing Grendel? The people-snatching creature from the black lagoon is a character with good grip. Witness Netflix's new hit, Stranger Things, in which 1980s kids find a terrifying gorgon from another world much like – you guessed it – a swamp.
There's an echo in David Bergen's new novel's title, Stranger, and in its plot, which expertly and subtly plays with the old story in a modern setting. Building on an uncanny lake, a series of potential human monsters and a stolen child, this book is inventive and electrifying.
Monster stories are about mothers, too (Grendel's mom is scarier than he is, and Winona Ryder is central as the anguished parent of Netflix's stolen kid). Accordingly, Stranger begins at Ixchel in Guatemala, named for the Mayan goddess of creation and destruction, and home to a fertility clinic frequented by the world's rich. Iso is one of its best local staff members. She massages and bathes clients' every crevice, and holds them in the local lake's supposedly healing waters, all while making herself invisible.
Only she's not as invisible as she makes out; she's in the throes of a love affair with one of the centre's doctors, the motorbiking American – and unhappily married – Eric Mann. His wife, Susan, turns up, hoping to get pregnant, but Iso is the one who does. By the time she gives birth, Eric has been transformed by a terrible injury and is back in the United States. And Susan coolly ensures the newborn girl is sent to her there.
Iso becomes the archetypal hero on a quest to another world – a brutal and divided America – to rescue her baby. Her full name – Paraiso Perdido – is Paradise Lost. So Milton is here, and maybe even Shakespeare, with the echo of his Perdita from The Winter's Tale, another lost child with a father who doesn't know who she really is. Yet Bergen's version of this character type is fresh out of the literary kitchen, strong and calm and terrifically drawn. Íso proceeds along the old story path with all its dangers, armed with only her wits and whatever she can pick up. She thinks often of stories. But "wisdom … didn't come from hearing stories of other people's lives," as Iso's mother says. As always, the hero has to find her own map and her own answers.
It takes a skilled and gutsy writer to so clearly overlay ancient frames with an item you might hear in passing on the news. That's Bergen. He's known for his clean prose and wonderful, startling observations, and this book has perfect pitch: The wealthy infertile women are "afraid of their own bodies," and an American couple "celebrated their fragile security by living extravagantly, by throwing large parties, and by spending large amounts of money on objects they would never use." On top of its elegance, this novel also plunges the reader down an icy hill of dread and suspense. Bergen's world is our world, but made just strange enough to show that, as in the oldest tales, nothing is as it seems.
In a twist on this idea, the book shows how easy it is to be half-blind to other cultures; in Ixchel, Iso tells Eric, "You come here and think you know about us. You talk about men and patriarchy and tubes tied. And you talk about poverty. You don't know half of it." (Eric dully corrects her English: "You don't know the half of it.") Throughout, the novel's clever dialogue makes bilingual communication a divided highway. Bergen rarely uses any words but English ones, so his Spanish choices stand out sharply. Igual is one, describing the way the Guatemalan clinic staff should be constantly present for their clients, but as "an object, much like a remote control or a timepiece." As it turns out, igual is a word made up by the clinic's American founder. So when Iso describes her little daughter, in the middle of an English sentence, as guapa – handsome – her actual Spanish reads as a moment of absolute truth. The child is handsome; she is all that is handsome in the world.
Alongside Netflix, Bergen's title also conjures up Camus, whose own titular French stranger murders an Algerian man for no clear reason. There's murder here, too, and senselessness, and culture clash. But the book's name also evokes the old adage about truth and fiction. Stranger is a brilliant and utterly convincing blend of both, and reminds us that even in the best-known stories, something unexpected is always lurking, if you go deep enough.
Alix Hawley is the author of All True Not a Lie in It, which won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award.