Verdict: Strong start, disappointing second half.
My rating: 3 out of 5 star
Genre: Fabulist short stories
Published by Riverhead, 2018
An inventive story collection that spans the globe as it explores love, childhood, and parenthood with an electric mix of humor and emotion.
Acclaimed for the grace, wit, and magic of her novels, Ramona Ausubel introduces us to a geography both fantastic and familiar in eleven new stories, some of them previously published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Elegantly structured, these stories span the globe and beyond, from small-town America and sunny Caribbean islands to the Arctic Ocean and the very gates of Heaven itself. And though some of the stories are steeped in mythology, they remain grounded in universal experiences: loss of identity, leaving home, parenthood, joy, and longing.
Crisscrossing the pages of Awayland are travelers and expats, shadows and ghosts. A girl watches as her homesick mother slowly dissolves into literal mist. The mayor of a small Midwestern town offers a strange prize, for stranger reasons, to the parents of any baby born on Lenin’s birthday. A chef bound for Mars begins an even more treacherous journey much closer to home. And a lonely heart searches for love online–never mind that he’s a Cyclops.
With her signature tenderness, Ramona Ausubel applies a mapmaker’s eye to landscapes both real and imagined, all the while providing a keen guide to the wild, uncharted terrain of the human heart.
I have been super in the mood for short stories and decided to start with a collection I was sure I would enjoy. Ramona Ausubel’s first collection was one of my favourite books of last year – there is just something about her brand of dark and twisted but whimsy and fantastical short stories that really works for me. And for the first three stories, I was in love and sure this would be another 5 star collection – but I didn’t love many of the stories that came after.
When Ausubel’s stories work for me, they are exactly in my sweet spot for short stories: dark and mean and filled with allusions to mythology; stories that deal with motherhood and being a daughter; they are challenging without being inaccessible; lyrical without being overly wordy. My absolute favourite story of this collection was “Fresh Water from the Sea” – both an exploration of the distinct feeling of returning to a country one has emigrated from and an exploration of the complicated relationship between a mother and one of her daughters influenced by this emigration. On the other hand, when they don’t work for me I find them vague and the weirdness off-putting; I also start to stumble over her sentence structure that I loved in other stories. In the story “Club Zeus” all the things I loved about the very first story of the collection (“You Can Find Love Now” about a cyclops setting up a profile on a dating app) – whimsical but dark allusions to mythology – really rubbed me the wrong way. I could just not get on board with the story at all.
Content warning: suicide, death, incest, pedophilia, in one story a woman has this idea of getting a doctor to surgically attach her hand to her husband’s arm and vice versa