Cut Through the Bone
 by Ethel Rohan

Dark Sky Books
2010, Paperback
First collection

"I held my first two fingers to her wrist, too squeamish to look at the dark blue veins.
    'Well?' she asked.
    'Sshh, I’m counting.'
'I’m here, though?' she whispered. 'Tell me I’m here.'

Reviewed by Annie Clarkson

Ethel Rohan has written a raw collection of thirty short stories, mainy only stretching to a few pages. The collection reaches a mere 113 pages, but she uses brevity to take us right into the heart of her stories; moments of crisis, loss, trauma and realization in the lives of her vivid characters.

Tracey in On The Loose experiences a trauma working in a gas station. In More Than Gone a woman talks to a balloon about her dead husband. In Lifelike a woman gives up work to nurse her lifesize baby dolls. In The Bridge They Said Couldn’t Be Built a woman talks a man down from the Golden Gate Bridge. In Fish two sisters are about to turn off their mum’s life support.

These are stories of grief, alcoholism, sexual assault, a botched facelift, separation, the death of a child, adoption, illness, and other such hard-hitting subject matter. Rohan approaches difficult issues with sensitivity and in unexpected ways. Tender and disturbed, heart-thumping and poignant, these stories deal with complex emotions. Yet, they are simply written and contain beautiful images: "His fingernails are broken black ecosystems."; "Her words tattooed me."

Many of Rohan’s characters are worn down, broken, empty, and yet they respond in surprising ways. We might think we are being taken in one direction, and then we are taken in another; we expect one ending and are given another.

The writer has a quirky imagination. For instance, in Found and Lost a baby appears in a woman’s life and then disappears.
I phoned the police and child services. Finders keepers, they said and hung up.
It is a strange and wonderful idea that the writer explores to expose the emptiness in a woman’s life, her longing and need. An unusual story, but then there are many of these in Cut Through The Bone.

In Fee Fi Fo Fum, the careless and uncaring workers in the old people’s home lose Rose’s dentures, so she finds her own. In Next to the Gutter, a boy’s mother leaves post-it note instructions for him all round the house, so he writes one of his own: "He arrived home from school and slipped into the dead feeling." In my favourite story Crazy, a girl who struggles to be good at home economics is made to show everyone the apron she has made, and responds by acting crazy like her mum who has mental health problems.

It’s hard to convey the strength and originality in this writing, and perhaps the only word that might sum up the way I felt after reading some of these stories is wow.

Some stories were not as strong and not all of them worked as well. But, the very good stories in Cut Through The Bone are haunting and truly stunning. Rohan creates some interesting juxtapositions as characters meet each other, as they come into contact with others losses. She shows us the absences in their lives, the empty spaces, the holes; the people who are missing or dead or who are emotionally not there.

Read a story from this collection in GuernicaMag

Annie Clarkson is a poet and short story writer living in Manchester, UK. Her chapbook of prose poems  Winter Hands was published by Shadow Train Books in 2007. Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies, magazines and online, including Brace (Comma), Unsaid Undone (Flax Books), Transmission, Ouroboros Review, Succour, Mslexia, Dreamcatcher, Cake, and Pank magazine.
Annie's other Short Reviews: Anthony De Sa "Barnacle Love"

Laura Chester "Rancho Weirdo"

Daniel Grandbois "Unlucky Lucky Days"

Josephine Rowe "East of Here, Close to Water"

Mark Illis "Tender"

"One World Anthology"

Samuel Ligon "Drift and Swerve"

Alice Zorn "Ruins and Relics"

Ailsa Cox "The Real Louise"

Mary Gaitskill "Don't Cry"

Lori Ostlund The Bigness of the World"

"The House of Your Dream"
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Ethel Rohan Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Potomac Review, and Los Angeles Review among many others. Another short short story collection, Hard to Say, is forthcoming from PANK in 2011.

Read an interview with Ethel Rohan