Ramona Ausubel’s newest book, “Awayland,” is no comforting bedtime story. Consisting of 11 short stories, Ausubel takes readers on a journey across ages and strange worlds. Her voice evokes homesickness and heartache, often turning the most ordinary moments into delicate, vulnerable ones. “Awayland” is not just about lands away from home, but rather the loss of home—be it country, family, love, or childhood.
Separated in four sections, the 11 stories are loosely tied together by geographical themes. Though the titles themselves are clever takes on landmarks and ideas evoked across the book (“Bay of Hungers,” “The Cape of Persistent Hope,” “The Lonesome Flats,” and “The Dream Isles”), they do not particularly fit into the titled categories. Instead, many of the best stories in the book successfully journey through the lands listed as titles.
Ausubel’s take on immigration rings particularly loud and clear. In “Fresh Water From the Sea,” a Lebanese mother who moves back home from the States realizes that even though Lebanon was exactly what she had missed all those years, after being home for so long, it, too, has become unfulfilling. Ausubel draws a clever parallel between the mother and her idea of home—when she feels Lebanon fading away, she, too, literally fades away. The story is told through the point of view of one of her daughters, whom Ausubel just calls “the girl.” “It used to be that I was my love for this place,” the girl’s mother says. When so much of a person’s life is dedicated to missing the place that she called “home,” the idea of home holds unrealistic expectations and becomes an unattainable perfection. In this story, the anguish and the disconnect between seas and siblings resonate when the girl whispers “I can hardly hear you either, in all this quiet” to her sister.
A few stories later, separated by pieces in different worlds with non-overlapping characters, Ausubel tells the tale of the girl’s sister in “Mother Land,” whom the readers discover is named Lucy. Painted as an absent character in “Fresh Water From the Sea,” Lucy is revealed to be a vulnerable and somewhat confused young adult, much more uncertain and drastically more thoughtful than her sister gives her credit for. “My parents were immigrants and my dad spent his life trying to be American,” Ausubel writes of Lucy. “I felt guilty that he would have a foreign grandchild.” This proves central to the cultural identity conflicts of the children of immigrants, a change to a future-looking perspective as opposed to the earlier retrospective view of returning to the home.
Ausubel’s incorporation of motherhood is also important. There are dismissive mothers, overly caring mothers, detached mothers, hopeful mothers, and mourning mothers. “Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species” uses a dystopian micro-society in Minnesota to illuminate all the disappointments in the world that would keep a woman from ever wanting to be a mother, yet also recognizes that those disappointments welcome changes that drive women to become mothers. In “Club Zeus,” a high-schooler named David in white Orange County—where “variation is a nonexistent principle”—goes abroad on a summer trip that reveals just how much even the most independent and responsible teenagers need a mother.
The shorter pieces are delightful, though they offer little to no plot. This makes them the hardest to decipher, but also the ones that should be pondered the most. The opening story, “You Can Find Love Now,” takes a refreshing twist on the modern online dating profile by inserting an ancient character into the plot in a humorous and ironic way. Much irony and thought goes into decoding why the “house at the junction of the River of Stealing and the Falls of Eternal Despair” is in the three-page story, “Heaven.” Easily overlooked because of their length, these enigmatic but thought-provoking pieces are hidden gems within the book.
Ausubel ends her collection on a rather desolate note with the last story, “Do Not Save the Ferocious, Save the Tender.” At the brink of existence, three desperate men project their loves and lusts onto a washed-ashore mermaid. The struggle is intense, and Ausubel’s words for the struggle is heart-wrenching, the characters themselves at once sickening and pitiful. Like the last story, “Awayland” is not always a smooth read. But beyond the emotional bumps that Ausubel creates, the stories are also heartwarming and depict the intricacies of human character.
—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lucyyloo22