Review: Cut Through the Bone, by Ethel Rohan

>>Published: December 2010

>>Finally got around to it: January 2011

I slapped at his arms, his chest. He jumped away from me. We stared at each other, stunned, breathless. I felt I had holes in my head and face from the crush of his fingers. He dropped to his knees and cradled me tightly in his lap, hid his face in my shoulder. Inside the glass, my mother flailed, a tree in a storm, trying to get to us.

***

Like a knife turned on its side, shaving away tissue-thin portions of skin one after another until seeing red, the thirty tales in Ethel Rohan’s debut short story collection Cut Through the Bone are self-contained, sometimes lyrical, often brutal slices of flash fiction, each ending with such a sharp intake of air one might feel lightheaded after reading too many at once.

In the past, flash fiction, as a form unto itself, is not something that I had given a great deal of thought to. The limits—500-1,000 words in most cases—seemed, to me, almost too restrictive. I’ve been writing a lot of short stories over the past two years, and when I first got wind of flash fiction I admit the idea of deliberately confining a narrative into such a tightly formed burst of words seemed, at the time, ludicrous. I was having a difficult enough time keeping myself within the parameters of a few thousand words; competent flash fiction seemed, thanks to a mental block I’d given myself, impossible. My thoughts on the subject, however, were clearly misguided, and like all things, strong work from the right hand will always light the way.

Flash fiction isn’t about restrictions. It’s about paring down, carving away adjectives and nouns, trimming modifiers and superfluous language until what’s left is only the barest of essentials—a breathless hit from a pipe that will spin your world. That’s what Ethel Rohan’s collection, Cut Through the Bone, delivers.

In thirty stories spread over a sparse but fulfilling 112 pages, Rohan gives us minimalist narratives of mostly nameless avatars: families falling apart; sons and mothers unable to communicate with one another; daughters and fathers adjusting to abandonment by the third peg in their once-was trio; a woman who, to the distress of her husband, latches on to an army of lifelike dolls to give her love to when there is no flesh and blood child to reciprocate; acceptance and rejection of the body as a thing to be cherished for what remains, or something to be scarred forever in an attempt to remake one’s life and, at the same time, inspire the jealousy of others. From “Under the Scalpel”:

Carrie’s hand rushed to her mouth. John gaped. The others paled. I shot out of my chair. Mom stood in the doorway in her long white nightdress, ghostly and unsteady. Her wig was lopsided and her make-up had melted. A doll burning in a fire. She looked from the others’ repulsed expressions to me, her lips two wiggling worms. She made small, wounded noises.

I hurried to her, my arms out. “Mommy. It’s okay, Mommy.”

I led her back to the stairs. My lies echoed in the hall, came back at us. She felt so tiny inside my arm, fragile and childlike, ,and yet the burden of her slithered up my spine, tightened around my throat.

Rohan understands the sparseness of language required in each of her stories, and she doesn’t abuse that. While some are admittedly stronger than others—the entries “Lifelike”, “Gone”, and “Next to the Gutter” are the fiercest pieces in the collection—the thirty stories in Cut Through the Bone offer a wealth of emotion and control, guiding readers through a minefield of disturbingly fragmented lifelines.

As a short aside, this is the first product I’ve had the pleasure of reading from Seattle-based Dark Sky Books. The chapbook-style is perfect for flash fiction, and the book maintains a very clean sense of style and organization, not to mention some beautiful cover art by a Seattle artist named Siolo Thompson. I’m very curious to see more work from Dark Sky if this is the quality of their early offerings.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Cut Through the Bone, by Ethel Rohan

  1. Hi Andrew,

    I arrived here thanks to Google Alerts. What a wonderful surprise. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my book, and the interest and insight to write such a kind review.

    This made me smile, once upon a time I felt the same way:

    “The limits—500-1,000 words in most cases—seemed, to me, almost too restrictive. I’ve been writing a lot of short stories over the past two years, and when I first got wind of flash fiction I admit the idea of deliberately confining a narrative into such a tightly formed burst of words seemed, at the time, ludicrous.”

    Thanks again, Andrew.

  2. Hi Ethel,

    Ah yes, Google alerts – we'd be lost without them 🙂

    It was my pleasure, believe me – and thank you for commenting (and for the Twitter follow as well). I started to write short fiction a couple of years ago, wanting to stretch my skills into an area besides novel-length works in progress, and at the same chance have an exercise to develop, even in short form, some of the many ideas I was holding onto. In truth, most of my short fiction still finds a balance somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 words, but every now and then I'll try my hand at a flash fiction tale. To date I've done three, and funnily enough, the only short story I've actually managed to get published was one of those three flash fiction tales – clocking in at a very even 1,000 words. It was eye opening to me when others commented on the strength of it in ways my longer work had not been recognized. So I am continuing to venture into that arena.

    Thank you again for the comment, and please keep me updated on whatever you have coming out next!

    -Andrew

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