A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel. Riverhead, $26.95 hardcover / $16 paperback.
Reviewed by Brynne Rebele-Henry
Ramona Ausubel’s unearthly collection of short stories, A Guide To Being Born, reconfigures the lines between birth and death, human and plant, the earth and the womb. Throughout these stories, Ausubel creates a dimension of growth and creation that, more often than not, destroys in pursuit of madness and comfort. The book is divided into four parts—reverse stages of birth—with two to three stories in each section: Birth (“Safe Passage” and “Poppyseed”), Gestation (“Atria,” “Chest of Drawers,” “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations”), Conception (“Catch and Release,” “Saver,” “Snow Remote”), and Love (“The Ages” and “Magniloquence”). The different sections present a dissection of birth, and the stories are all the more haunting for it. At their best, these stories are like a poltergeist: they follow you around, leaving dust, confusion, and bones to sift through and ponder later.
In “Safe Passage,” a mob of grandmothers near death are on a cruise ship in an ocean filled with crates of baseball bats and roses—mementos of their time on land. The protagonist, Alice, remembers the boats and trains she has been on throughout her life and divides them into different passages of her time on land. At the end of the story, she climbs overboard and floats suspended in the cold ocean while unknown creatures swim beneath her:
She peers below, trying to see, but the only things are her own feet haloed by green phosphorescence, kicking and kicking and kicking.
“Will both of my husbands be mine again?” she calls to the birds or the fish or the sky. “Can I love them again now?” She does not get her answer. Her slip rises up around her like a tutu. She looks now like a ballerina on a music box, legs bared under the high-flying skirt. The material is soft and brushes Alice’s arms. She does not try to hold the slip down. Her breasts float up. All around her the green light of stirred water.
The images in this story are captivating, and each sentence is polished, packaged like a planet insulated by the other corresponding story systems.
In “Poppyseed,” the parents of a severely disabled eight-year-old whose brain cannot develop past infancy decide to give her a hysterectomy. Her growth is compared to plant life and seeds, and they literally transplant her by burying her breast glands in a median in the highway near the hospital where her operation takes place:
In the median I knelt down and began to dig a hole. Your father understood right away and helped, his left hand a protective fist, his right a shovel. In a few minutes, we had come to darker soil and we both put the seeds of you inside, covered them in earth. “To growing,” I said. “Whatever that might mean.”
This is a book of maladies, a manifesto to mothers and animals and desire. Here, furniture and fetuses and animals join. In “Atria,” a teenage girl in a closely knit suburban community gets pregnant and begins to think of her unborn baby as a host of various animals because the possible fathers (a rapist and a gas station employee) seem inhuman and incapable of creating life. In “Snow Remote,” two twins begin to assume identities based on the expectations and myths surrounding their dysfunctional home, most of which are fabricated by their father, who spends his days rigging a Christmas light display and waiting for passersby to rain artificial snow upon. In “Tributaries,” people grow new arms when they fall in love, and a person’s character is judged by the number of arms he or she has.
Throughout A Guide To Being Born, Ausubel’s prose is lush yet natural, clear and bell-like, almost religious in its fervor. She expertly combines the profane and outrageous with the mythical, beautiful, and surreal. These stories are reminiscent of a Matisse, visceral and amusing, as if ridiculing sadness.