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The natural world looms large in Jean Ryan’s meditative short-story collection, Survival Skills (Ashland Creek Press). These thirteen stories inhabit the myriad spaces where wild brushes up against domestic—animals and weather take their place in these stories as easily as the characters do. From the dogs in “Greyhound” and “What Gretel Knows” to the octopuses in “A Sea Change” to the brutally wise parrot in “Paradise,” these stories explore interconnectedness, in sometimes surprising ways.
Ryan has a knack for details, and her language is delicate, understated. Her stories have a lingering, quiet power. Many of these stories are like monologues, but they are by no means insular; in fact, by looking outward, by examining the natural world around them, these characters come to a greater understanding of themselves.
Ryan is fascinated by how humans are altered by unexpected connections, and her keen eye for detail captures them beautifully. Her language is incredibly sensual: in “Sea Change” the chef-narrator’s evocations of food—seafood in particular—are pretty sexy, and in “Survival Skills” the narrator’s meditation on plants comes close to sublime. All that said, Ryan’s prose is remarkable in its simplicity, because she recognizes how little is needed to create such a rich world—of orchids in “Survival Skills”: “Imagine being that sure of yourself: Sweet or stinking, you claim the right to be here.” Ryan also displays remarkable empathy throughout Survival Skills; in “The Side Bar,” the narrator says of a friend embroiled in an affair: “She’s not asking for pardon or promises, only a little time in which to feel alive.”
In “Migration,” a woman reeling from divorce moves to Lake Tahoe, where she is befriended by a Canada goose. So many of the narrators in Survival Skills are coping—with loss or infidelity or circumstances out of their control—and here Ryan really nails the unmoored state of mind that so often accompanies these shifts in life. The protagonist, Erica, is poised for change from the beginning—she even changes her last name to “Lake” rather than retaking her maiden name—but it is only with the entrance of the curious goose that real change occurs. Erica is changed—within—by the outer world: “Last night she had found a book in the living room, full of gorgeous photos, about animals and what they do to stay alive. The privation. The commitment.” At this moment, Erica identifies with the natural world, understands how close it is to her own—and because of that, she is able to truly see what is necessary for survival. Having just lived through her own migration, this lesson is a profound one.
The stories in Survival Skills have many strengths, but they are not without their too-quiet moments. These character-driven pieces can sometimes meander. They also, occasionally, avoid conflict in an almost pathological way—perhaps an accurate reflection of their protagonists. For instance, in “What Gretel Knows” the narrator says: “Eva is coming for a visit.” Eva is the narrator’s sister, and we find out as the story progresses that during their childhood, Eva was badly injured in an accident that the narrator has internalized as her fault. It’s a fascinating look at the weight of guilt, but Eva never actually arrives in the story, and we don’t get to see the two sisters interact. But these are minor quibbles given the collection’s power
Survival Skills is a collection of understated, elegant narratives that throw a keen eye on the interconnectedness of humans with the natural world. Jean Ryan holds a magnifying glass to those unexpected moments in which transformation occurs, and the quiet power of these stories will remain with you well after the final page is turned.
Survival Skills: Stories
By Jean Ryan
Ashland Creek Press
Paperback, 9781618220219, 212 pp.