ETHEL ROHAN: cut through the bone

Mon Feb 21 11, San Francisco

(Alma Vescovi)

The genre of flash fiction gives us small glimpses, brief openings of a door onto a briefly sketched scene. It’s also a genre that lends itself to studies of sadness and disappointment, small throbs of pain that would overpower if extended into a longer form. Like a doctor who insists, “This will only hurt for a second,” Ethel Rohan leads us through disappointments both ordinary and extraordinary, sparing us nothing but length. The result is a series of painfully honest examinations of loss and confusion.

The Momentum of Sadness

Childlessness, loneliness, and botched plastic surgery are only a few of the quietly felt dissatisfactions in Cut Through the Bone (Dark Sky Books). Rohan is attentive to even the smallest manifestation of discontent: a tendency to break jars, an addiction to dry-roasted peanuts; she has a gift for recording the small changes that announce a greater complaint. Rohan has an especially deft touch with the momentum of grief: if flash fiction is the snap of a camera in the dark, then she is a master of the well-timed exposure; a mounting, dead-end sadness and the slow, sure build of an accident about to happen are well-captured in spite of the stories’ brevity.

Things That Go Wrong

Rohan’s all-female cast of characters might as well be one woman; the distinctions are evident only in the womens’ incompatible grievances and small, sometimes imperceptible shifts in time and location. The brevity of the stories doesn’t allow us much investment in Rohan’s vulnerable women, and the stories sometimes read like an anthology of Things That Go Wrong—explorations of the hypothetical ways in which life can fail any of us.

Just Enough

The characters are quickly introduced, their can of worms briefly opened, and then they are whisked out of sight. Fortunately, if Rohan’s characters lack a depth found in longer stories, her dogged treatment of her theme creates an almost medical portrait of injuries, following them through their cycle: infliction, infection, swelling, sweating, and scabbing. Scattered throughout the book are small solaces and the occasional victory, just enough to let a little light through the keyhole.

Check out the book trailer, below: