Review by Robert Mateo Keegan Burbano
Survival Skills by Jean Ryan
Ashland Creek Press – April 2013
Jean Ryan, author of the novel Lost Sister, has released her first collection of short stories entitled Survival Skills. Although the stories in the collection span over a decade of publications, Survival Skills reads well collectively due to reoccurring themes and characters at similar crossroads in their lives. Ryan’s prose is controlled, engaging, insightful, and optimistic in its portrayal of its characters abilities to overcome hardships.
As implied by the title, Ryan’s main project is illuminating how people can survive traumas both physical and emotional. The traumas of everyday life, both big and small, are paralleled to the natural world. Many of the collection’s characters fixate on animal and plant life, and attempt to find some succor within the rules of the natural kingdom. In the collection’s opening story, “Greyhound,” the narrator adopts a rescued greyhound to draw out her lover, Holly, from the isolation that illness has trapped Holly in. The adopted greyhound, Fawn, turns out to be as damaged as the narrator’s partner; Fawn refuses to run. The narrator’s need to fix problems seems initially thwarted, but as she loses hope, Fawn begins to warm to the couple, and rediscovers her instinctual love of running just as Holly’s eczema mysteriously vanishes. The story’s ending does not promise never-ending happiness, rather a respite that allows the characters a small measure of hope. This hope is delicate but enough to carry on. As the narrator states, “How long this state of grace will last is a question we don’t need answered.”
All of Ryan’s stories chart humans’ survival patterns in careful, controlled detail. In the collection’s title story, “Survival Skills,” a woman draws parallels to survival adaptations in nature to her brother’s fear of driving after becoming convinced he killed a pedestrian while behind the wheel. There is no evidence of her brother having killed anyone, but the sister sees in his phobia an evolutionary throwback that is a justifiable response to the chaos of modernity. In “A Sea Change,” Jenny sees her girlfriend, Antonia’s vocational interest in sea biology as a form of infidelity. She at first tries to support Antonia, altering her cooking to exclude any sea life despite their relationship’s beginning over their mutual love of oysters. The women slowly draw apart, and Jenny accepts their relationship is finished when she sees Antonia in a large water tank involved in an erotically charged interaction with an octopus. Jean Ryan, a professional chef, uses her expertise about food to successfully symbolize conflicts and character psychologies through a number of Survival Skills’ stories.
Car accidents, physical traumas, illness, aging and other incursions disrupt the lives of Survival Skills characters, but Ryan never relies on cynicism. She maintains a hopeful, at times humorously toned belief in humanity’s ability to endure difficulties, and in her collection readers might find a prescription to their own maladies.