These stories are bizarre. That’s the best word to describe them. Even the stories that aren’t magical realism have that strange “people behaving weirdly” thing going on. The author definitely has a talent for making the realistic feel fantastical.
As soon as I finished this collection, I put Ramona Ausubel’s other books on my wish list because A Guide to being Born contains some of the best writing I’ve seen in a long time. The author takes small details and makes them hugely meaningful, but not in a melodramatic way. Every word feels significant and carefully chosen. The stories are both darkly hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.
Like all short story collections, I like some of the stories a lot more than others. A few of the stories lack tension, and I struggled to stay interested in them, but, fortunately, most of the book was captivating.
I’ll summarize my favorite stories. (Actually, I have a lot of favorites, so I’m only going to talk about my favorite-favorites):
In “Safe Passage,” a group of grandmothers wakes up on a ship in the middle of an unknown ocean. The grandmothers aren’t sure if they’re alive, dead, or somewhere in between.
“Poppyseed” alternates points-of-view between a father and a mother. The father gives ghost tours of a “haunted” ship while the mother takes care of their disabled daughter. The structure of this story is slightly confusing at first, but I like how it discusses the rights of severely disabled people. This one turned out to be the most thought-provoking story in the collection.
“Atria” is the most heartbreaking story. It’s about a pregnant teenage girl who is convinced that she will not give birth to a human baby. Over the course of the story, she stresses about what type of animal she will give birth to and how to take care of it.
In “Chest of Drawers,” a man is so envious of his wife’s pregnancy that he literally grows a chest of drawers in his body. He fills the drawers with ethnically diverse plastic babies and some other interesting objects.
“Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations” is full of morbid humor. A family’s cat is run over by a car. Getting rid of the body turns out to be harder than they expected.
“‘We can do a cremation here, at the house?’ I ask.
‘We built a fire,’ my father says.
‘Obviously. And I put the whole cat in the fire?’
‘There isn't a whole cat,’ my mother says.
‘What is there?’
‘Parts of cat,’ they say together.
‘Bones?’ I ask.
‘Mostly. And some fur. And some face.’” – “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations,” A Guide to being Born
As the title suggests, these stories are all about being born. Many of them are about pregnancy, but some of them examine birth in more subtle ways. The characters are born into death or into a new way of life. This collection feels more cohesive than a lot of short story collections. I enjoyed seeing the author’s different interpretations of the “birth” topic.
I’m looking forward to reading more of Ramona Ausubel’s work. This collection is impressive.