Love, Remind Us We Are Alive:
A Review of Ramona Ausubel’s A Guide to Being Born

Reviewed by Precious Williams

A Guide to Being Born
Ramona Ausubel
Riverhead Books, 2013
Fiction (Stories)
198 pages

In her short story collection A Guide to Being Born, Ramona Ausubel takes readers on a surreal journey exploring the theme of love and its many expressions. She offers eleven short stories, flashing bursts of light, arranged in four cycles based on birth, gestation, conception, and love. In the intriguing cover illustration, a faceless woman greets us, her torso opened, revealing her lungs and heart. In her abdomen, a cherub-faced egg is nestled on a bed billowing of flowers. She holds her hands are held in front of her as though protecting her precious cargo from something outside of her—a symbol of the innocence and vulnerability each character within the pages carries and attempts to preserve.

In “Safe Passage,” Ausubel’s fantastical prose births readers onto a cruise ship, its passengers, “the grandmothers—dozens of them,” in transit to the underworld. In their initial shock, some try to escape, others cry, while some make small talk. “It’s possible that I’m dead,” Alice tells another grandmother, unaware of her condition lying in a hospital bed surrounded by her family. On the ship, she and the other grandmothers find solace gathering and sharing tidbits of their lives once lived. As Alice’s family takes her off of the ventilator, memories of her two marriages and the love they shared soothe her. Making her escape from the boat, Alice slides over the side and into the vast blue expanse.

Ausubel visits death and grieving from the point of view of the survivors, as well. In “Magniloquence,” a mourning professor whispers to his deceased wife, “I am going to be brave like you asked me to, but I don’t have any idea yet what that means.” He stands at a podium gazing over the heads of his sleeping fellow faculty members, trapped in wait for a famed Nobel Prize speaker. Returning to the comfort of the audience, he slumbers with them beneath the dessert table. In “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations,” a young boy struggles to cope with the death of his cat, Houdini. His parents offer little empathy and find solace in their lovemaking. “This here is what made you. You don’t even exist without this,” his mother informs him when he interrupts. Spurned, the boy attempts to keep his dwindling family together, scattering the freshly charred ashes of the cat over himself and their naked bodies: “Houdini fills us up, binds us all together.”

“Saver” introduces us to college-aged Mabel Finch, who lives with her father, Charlie, in their tiny one-room apartment. Mabel is Charlie’s sole consistent source of love. Wrought with a fear of loss from the death of Mabel’s mother, Charlie wanders aimlessly from woman to woman. After a date, he talks to Mabel about her mother. “The two of them did not read books together; Charlie did not sing. What he did, had always done, was tell Mabel stories about Lady.” In the midst of his pain, though, he cannot retell the story of Lady’s death. Mabel remains trapped in his cycle of grief until she shares a tender moment of love with Booker, a former co-worker navigating his own uncertainties about life.  

The act of sharing one’s story in some way, whether true or not, is a thread carefully woven throughout each character’s life in this collection, reminding us that at our core lies our universal humanity. A juxtaposition of extremes, Ausubel’s colorful characters bounce back and forth between fantasy and reality, life and death, love and loss. She paints their tension in fanciful strokes, otherworldly images of words too tender to be spoken. At times, character portraits become muddled and muted, but Ausubel dives headfirst into the world of magical realism and offers readers  a clear, imaginative gift of profound insight into the human experience transformed by love and longing.

Ausubel grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and now lives in Santa Barbara, California. She recently won the 2013 PEN Center USA Fiction Award for her first novel No One is Here Except All of Us, published in 2012. Ausubel received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and has taught there, as well as at the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, Pitzer College, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her stories have been published in The Paris Review Daily, The New Yorker, Slice, One Story, and elsewhere.

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Precious Williams is an assistant editor at Flycatcher.

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