Review of 'Cut Through the Bone' by Ethel Rohan

Ethel Rohan’s first collection of stories, Cut Through the Bone, is pregnant with characters haunted either by loss or the absence of something they never had. They compensate for these absences in strange ways, essentially becoming different people—their surrogate selves are prosthetics for phantom limbs. We meet Rohan’s characters in medias res, trapped in excruciating cycles of yearning, addiction and complicity—of quiet catastrophe.

In the very first story, “More Than Gone,” an older woman attends her first public gathering since her husband’s funeral where she is given a purple balloon. When she gets home she ties the balloon to a chair, thinks of her husband and draws a face on the balloon in black marker. The story ends with the line:
She can just about remember being so young that she’d cry over a burst balloon.
Here Rohan immediately sets the tone of this collection, at once whimsical, astonishing and tragic, weaving past and present selves together to document and question the nature of identity as it relates to her chartacters' memories of others.

In “Lifelike,” a woman in a childless marriage obsessively collects baby dolls that quickly fill the house, as she gradually forgets her other responsibilities (calling off work, neglecting the tropical fish, refusing to see friends or even leave the house). Her husband, disturbed by his wife’s obsession, eventually yields to his wife’s behavior, agreeing to let one of the dolls sleep in bed with them. He wakes during the night thinking he hears crying, and the story ends with the line:
He checked first on his wife and then on the doll between them.
Rohan’s endings are subtle, but simultaneously imply several literal and figurative meanings. Here the doll is literally between the couple, but also comes between them, figuratively driving them apart until the husband surrenders his pleas for sanity to his desire for happiness (which means allowing his wife's obsession to continue—letting her be happy). In this way, the dolls end up bringing them closer together. This paradox, among others, is why this collection quivers with surreality.

In “Vitals,” a doctor’s wife commands her son to take her pulse to reassure her that she’s still there.

In “Babies on the Shore,” thousands of (possibly dead) ladybugs pepper the shore of a beach as the narrator contemplates the possible consciousness of rain.

In “Next to the Gutter,” a boy comes home from school to find an endless series of Post-It notes from his mother instructing him to do his homework, avoid television, etc., all while she is at work. When she comes home he sticks a Post-It on his forehead that says “Free—Please Take,” and goes out to sit on the curb.

The story “How to Kill,” about a couple living in the aftermath of an abortion, seems like it could be a prologue to “Lifelike,” as it provides impetus for the wife’s eccentric and disturbing behavior.

Cut Through the Bone is bracketed by phantom limbs. I’ve discussed the first story, “More Than Gone,” above. In the title story concluding this collection, an amputee asks his massage therapist to massage “where [his] leg used to be[.]”

I feel Rohan is the massage therapist—rather, her description of the massage therapist’s work on the patient’s phantom limb is how I imagine Rohan composes her stories. This feels evident in the the collection’s concluding lines:
She started at the empty space, her heart knocking against her ribcage, and reminded herself to breathe. […] Warmth radiated out of her hands and into the memory of [the patient’s] foot, his leg, and all that was lost.
Cut Through the Bone is available from Dark Sky Books. Her second collection of stories, Hard to Say, is forthcoming from PANK Little Books. Here is Ethel Rohan’s blog.

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