shining the spotlight on short story collections
Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013
Reviewed by Diane Becker
“As soon as she’s organized, she walks onto the glass bridge and through the warm blue sky, her arms stretched out from her sides. People stare, and some throw her cranky looks because of all the space she’s taking up, but she doesn’t care. She twirls above the rush of water and inside the cool of clouds, gravity as good as gone.”
Ethel Rohan’s second collection contains thirty mostly very short, often quirky tales where the everyday is peeled back to reveal the rifts, shifts and occasional violence that ripple under or through her characters’ lives.
Often events trigger buried feelings or uncomfortable memories. In Keepsake, a woman sees the image of her dead mother in a wine-stained rug, in Haunt, ‘Cars sped past Matt and me on the road. I felt their undertow, like a riptide, like Ma was pulling me back to her.’ In the title story, Goodnight Nobody, a garbage man finds a dead body in a dumpster, the first he’s found in thirty years on the job. His discovery provokes memories of his wife, the only other dead body he’s ever seen. It’s a chilling discovery but he feels nothing, wonders if he’d feel something ‘if it was a pretty girl inside …’. While he’s waiting for the police, he’s drawn to an optical illusion of three moons on an apartment window and drifts into thoughts about his dead wife. In Baby, an anonymous 50th birthday gift to a single man – a Grow-Your-Own-Baby kit -triggers disturbing childhood memories.
Rohan’s stories shift geographically, between Ireland and the US with a brief stop in Manchester (England), but it is the characters who drive this unsettling collection; the pyromaniac mother in Fire who ‘… closed her eyes and conjured the fire of moments earlier, beating overhead like a golden eagle’; the bee-keepers wife in Bee Killer; the tattoo artist in Illustrated Girl whose actions in the office one hot Monday reveal not only her true nature, but those of her co-workers.
Tattoos and other bodily anomalies reveal truths that are as uncomfortable for the characters as they are for the reader: ‘My father hated tattoos, said they defaced God’s work. Ever we meet in the next life, I’m going to tell him that men did more to deface me than any tattoo’ (Dark Stars); in The Splitting Image, twins – identical apart from the fact that one has only one arm – struggle to find equanimity: ‘John pushed his stump into his mouth and down his throat until he vomited’; in Darkroom, a photographer embarks on a final project to come to terms with her failing sight.
Stories in which the main characters are unable to change a situation resonate most strongly. In Flash, a woman battles with reality versus expectation, revealing unpleasant but honest feelings about her disabled brother. In Out of the Wreckage, a child – struggling to understand the emotional undercurrents and eruptions of violence within her parents’ relationship – finds solace in the contemplation of a potentially explosive escape. In the multi-layered Whales, the most accomplished story in this fine collection, an elderly woman’s thoughts swing between life and death: ‘Incontinence pads. Never. She lowered the TV volume and opened the newspaper at random, to an article debating the ban of plastic bags in stores….She pictured a bright blue plastic bag cinched over her head and imagined the warm humidity of her breath.’ Beautiful, haunting, heartbreaking.
About the author: Ethel Rohan was born and raised in Dublin and now lives in San Francisco. Her first story collection Cut Through The Bone was longlisted for the 2010 Story Prize. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, World Literature Today, Tin House Online, Sou’wester, Post Road Magazine and The Rumpus, among many others.
About the reviewer: Diane Becker writes short stories, poems and fragments. Her work can be read at The Pygmy Giant, Metazen, Flashquake, Ink Sweat and Tears, and The Postcard Press.