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Reviewed by Jack Messenger for Readers' Favorite
In Ryan Masters’ Above an Abyss, ‘Trampoline Games’ tells of the inferno-summer of 1986 in Sandy, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, where Jacob, the new 12-year-old in town, meets and befriends Finn Levy, a rebellious and eccentric red-haired kid who sports a white lab coat decorated with New Wave buttons. Jacob also discovers the four Hanson girls who live next door. They have a trampoline. He becomes quietly obsessed with Debra, also twelve. In contrast, ‘The Moth Orchid’ is set in Fairbanks, Alaska, where it is fifteen degrees below zero. Alasa Memnov maintains an orchid hothouse with obsessive vigilance, while also taking time to visit her mother, Bebe, at a nursing home: Bebe has succumbed to early-onset Alzheimer’s. Appropriately, it is the Russian Orthodox Feast of the Epiphany, before which Alasa dreams proleptically of self-revelation.
Ryan Masters’ writing is masterfully self-effacing. Nothing is forced and nothing draws attention to itself, yet it is all perfect, natural, necessary, complete with unexpected revelation amid the everyday. There is much humour and bitterness in both works, but in inverse proportion. One senses the possibility, or the fear of the possibility, that characters might simply disappear, absorbed by a landscape or a weird culture, and lose themselves. Most wonderfully, ‘Trampoline Games’ and ‘The Moth Orchid’ end on entirely unexpected notes of quiet revelation, the reverberations of which continue long afterwards. They are quite remarkable and profoundly moving. Above an Abyss surely establishes Ryan Masters as a great practitioner of the novella, one of the most difficult and ambiguous of literary forms. Read it and be touched by a quiet moment of grace.