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Ethel Rohan

Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Potomac Review, and Los Angeles Review among many others. Cut Through the Bone was Long Listed as a notable collection by the 2010 Story Prize.


“Rohan’s stories are, more than anything else, about loss . . . and about the odd, endearing, and desperate ways that people fill the void or ignore it.”


“These stories create a sense of loss in the reader, an ache, but thankfully they avoid dull cynicism. Instead, they bear witness to the difficulty of living for oneself while sacrificing for others."

– Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine

“In this unforgettable collection, Rohan reveals her mastery in finding the danger of ordinary objects, the way they come alive when her characters hold them in their hands.”

– Kevin Wilson, author of Tunneling to the Center of the Earth

"This is a marvelous collection, filled with moments that startle and shatter."

– Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us

" . . . beautiful and inventive, tender and absurd, quirky and heartbreaking, dark and strange and devastating."

– Michael Kimball, author of Dear Everybody,

"Ethel Rohan’s women, despite their wounds, are strong of spirit."

– William Walsh, author of Pathologies

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Cut Through the Bone

Reviewing a Review: Amber Sparks at Vouched


Every Friday, my plan is to reach out into the small press community and highlight writers/readers/bloggers who are writing about Cut Through the Bone. Because I want to be honest here, I’ll admit that there is some cross promotion between my internet tendencies with today’s post, since I’m reviewing a review of Cut Through the Bone by Amber Sparks over at Vouched, my other baby.

In my intro/launch post this past Wednesday, I mentioned briefly how Rohan doesn’t just leave her readers with loss in her stories, but allows readers a space to grow in the absence of what was lost. And what I loved about Spark’s review was how she focused on that aspect of these stories:

“I feel that many of the reviews I’ve read of Ethel’s book have focused mostly on the loss. With good reason: the characters that walk through these pages are all missing something, whether it is a leg or breasts or a child or love. They have all suffered a great and scarring rending away of some kind. Yet to me, the real wonder, the bright discovery made within these stories was not so much the losses sustained, but what was gained with some uneasy grace, after the initial shock.”

One of the aspects of Cut Through the Bone I love so much is how Rohan doesn’t provide her readers with some epiphany brought about from the loss in these stories, but allows us to find it for ourselves, or perhaps in ourselves. I’ve always been wary of stories that try to wrap these themes up so neat and tidy with some, “All of a sudden, s/he realized,” sort of moment, because anyone who’s dealt with loss, whether the loss of a pet or the loss of a close friend/relative/loved one, knows it just doesn’t work like that.

Dealing with the grief of loss takes work, dammit, and that’s what Rohan lets us do: work. She doesn’t patronize or coddle us. She trusts us to have the strength and courage necessary to make our own bright discoveries.

I strongly believe how you respond to Cut Through the Bone will reflect how you respond to loss in your own life. If you read these stories and respond with the simple, classic classroom question, “Why is everything we read in this class so sad?” then I’ll be frank with you: you’re either ill-equipped to deal or inexperienced in dealing with grief and loss.

Sure, loss is sad, but it doesn’t end there unless you let it. And of course some people give way to that, and a collection of stories centered around this theme wouldn’t be complete without recognizing that, which Rohan does, as Amber writes:

“This description may be too pat, may make it seem as though this was one of those books, where the women are strong and the men are weak, where the women are good and the men are all assholes. Not so. Ethel is far more of a complex, nuanced writer than that. True, her men are more often than not in need of help, morally weak, or just the less able of the partnership; but there is not too much bitterness in the extra help the women lend. Instead this seemed to me a deep understanding Ethel has of the weight and balance of love, and the special kind of strength women have always had to possess. Sometimes, too, the women are fragile, are weak, break under their burdens. In “Lifelike,” and in “Make Over,” the women collapse into their own fantasy worlds, unable to cope with life as it is.”

I don’t remember much about the week after my mother died. I didn’t shave and I slept little, but I only know that from a picture my uncle took after the funeral, a tired sag in the skin around my eyes and my face buried beneath a brush of stubble.

My body moved apart from me. There were things necessary to be done, and my brother and I moved about doing them. I let my girlfriend empathize, let myself cry against her chest, because I knew how she needed to be needed. I let people hug me, give me their condolences. I didn’t argue when people told me Mom was in a better place, that I’d see her again. They needed that.

What I needed was a book like Cut Through the Bone, a book that would show me how to respond with grace to what had been so unexpectedly amputated from my life, and wouldn’t try to tell me how it would be all right, wouldn’t try to sell me on an epiphany or a grand scheme of things. I needed a friend who trusted that the turmoil beneath my skin could be contained there, who didn’t start every conversation with, “How you holdin’ up?” as though I was some sort of staggering Atlas, who gave me stories other than my own for awhile, stories that made me work a little to find the hope and joy in them. If this sounds like the story of a life, okay.

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  1. Ethel Rohan said on 06/03/11 at 9:59 am Reply

    You brought me to tears. This is a beautiful, moving and honest post. Thank you for sharing, and for seeing and understanding these stories in this wonderful way.


    Molly Gaudry said on 06/03/11 at 10:02 am

    I love what Chris wrote here: “Dealing with the grief of loss takes work, dammit, and that’s what Rohan lets us do: work. She doesn’t patronize or coddle us. She trusts us to have the strength and courage necessary to make our own bright discoveries.”

    Chris Newgent said on 06/03/11 at 1:03 pm

    Thanks, Ethel. Glad you enjoyed the response to the response of your book. Ha.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/03/11 at 1:11 pm

    @molly: Thanks. I’ve always been drawn to writing that makes me work a bit in some capacity, whether that’s intellectually like reading a DFW essay, or emotionally, like the stories in Cut. It’s a way I think literature can push and stretch and grow us as people.

    One of the things I love most about discussing a work of art or literature isn’t necessarily the examination of the work, but in what that examination shows us about ourselves. I don’t really like going to art galleries by myself, I don’t like reading a book without having someone else to talk to about it. It’s the talking about it that really reveals what a work of art has to offer to us as a community.

  2. Eric Beeny said on 06/03/11 at 11:16 am Reply

    “I didn’t argue when people told me Mom was in a better place, that I’d see her again. They needed that.”

    Word. I love how understated that line is (a subtle critique of belief in [g]od and, maybe even more so, an examining of your own sense of isolation), how empathetic, even in the wake of your own pain. And, of course, Ethel’s book is wonderful! Great post, Chris…

    PS – Any progress on your Galileo book?


    Chris Newgent said on 06/03/11 at 1:27 pm

    My mom actually died just a month or so after I had gone through a 5-6 month “crisis of faith” in my Christian beliefs and finally resigned myself as an agnostic. So, I remember a lot of the months after Mom’s death being wrapped up in my own thoughts, as you said critiquing a belief in god and examining my own sense of isolation, which is perhaps a better way to say it than you may know. People looked at me different, when I walked into a room for the first month or so afterward, the entire demeanor of the room changed. If I cracked a joke, people didn’t know whether it was okay to laugh. It was strange, but it wasn’t the end. Eventually, people grew comfortable with me again. I grew comfortable with me again. Nothing but the end is ever the end. And even then…

    Chris Newgent said on 06/03/11 at 1:30 pm

    Re: the Galileo book, unfortunately not. Once I get settled into my routine posting here, I’m hoping to focus again on my own writing.

    We should set up a system where I have to send you my progress every week, and you can workshop it as I go along. Maybe read the final product to your kid and see whether it’s a winner before I start sending it out. Haha.

    Eric Beeny said on 06/06/11 at 8:50 pm

    Ha, yeah, that sounds good! Whenever it’s done, send it along. Once my daughter gives confirmation of awesomeness, you’re good to go…

  3. Amber said on 06/03/11 at 1:07 pm Reply

    Wow. This is really lovely. I feel very much the same way you do about loss. There is no “correct” way to respond to a hole in your life, but avoidance of sad things seems to create its own kind of void–I feel very sorry for people who live in that void. So glad you loved Ethel’s book and took away so much from it–it’s such a great book and I’m so glad it’s getting the attention it deserves.


    Chris Newgent said on 06/03/11 at 2:00 pm

    I like how you differentiate between a “hole” in one’s life, and a “void,” even if you didn’t mean to. It makes me think of a hole in one’s life as having the potential to be filled with something. But a void seems boundless, unfillable.

  4. Ethel Rohan said on 06/03/11 at 1:18 pm Reply

    Thanks so much, Molly, Eric and Amber.


  5. T Walker said on 06/03/11 at 8:35 pm Reply

    The time after loss is when you make discoveries, start new things without entangling alliances. Reading Ethel’s stories, I was excited first by the writing and then by the content. People stepping off into the unknown worlds and lives.


  6. Kevin O'Cuinn said on 06/04/11 at 11:18 am Reply

    Ethel is a gifted writer of the most exquisite stories. And she’s also a townie of mine. I was lucky enough to be able to read Cut Through The Bone before it went to print, and was honoured that Ethel might be interested in my thoughts on it. A lot of the comments I sent her were, simply, ‘Wow … love this … nothing is wasted.’ Each piece is a precious gem. As the amputee says in the title story, ‘It’s the phantom stuff, I can still feel it.’


  7. Ethel Rohan said on 06/04/11 at 11:27 am Reply

    I’m already in a sentimental mood this morning and now, Kevin, you’ve just put me over the edge, in the best possible way. Thank you, Kevin. This is such a generous comment and I’m honored. Consider this a virtual hug.


  8. Jordan Blum said on 06/06/11 at 3:11 pm Reply

    After first reading Molly’s connection with COW and now this post, I must say I admire the bravery of the Lit Pub leaders. It’s nice to see you guys connect so much with your chosen books, and it attests to the power literature can have between writer and reader.


    Ethel Rohan said on 06/07/11 at 10:14 pm

    Well said, Jordan, and I wholeheartedly agree. The Lit Pub and everyone behind it are remarkable and boast a passion and devotion that’s extraordinary and most welcome.

  9. Kirsty Logan said on 06/08/11 at 11:34 am Reply

    I love the notion of writing that focuses on the gaps, the lack, the missing thing – how we shape our lives around an absence. It’s a testament to the power of Ethel’s writing that her stories affect people in such a deep way.

    By the way, this is the first thing I’ve read on The Lit Pub and I’m already in love. Good work, lit folk.


    Molly Gaudry said on 06/17/11 at 9:05 pm

    Hey Kirsty,

    Thanks for checking out TLP, and the kind words! Sorry I didn’t see you’re comment until now. I hope you keep coming around. I’ve always appreciated the insights you give to the PANK blog, and what work of yours I’ve read online. I’d love to have those insights grace our comment sections around here!

  10. Ethel Rohan said on 06/09/11 at 12:40 pm Reply

    Thanks for joining us, Kirsty. Isn’t The Lit Pub something. I’m so excited for and by it. Clearly, I’m also obsessed with loss and how it haunts, how the absence can become even bigger than what’s missing.


  11. donna d. vitucci said on 06/10/11 at 5:16 pm Reply

    what to say except ethel nails it. and so does the conversation amongst all here. what a great thing–to be reading and thinking and writing and talking. to give order to the disorder in the one way we know how: words.


    Ethel Rohan said on 06/15/11 at 8:15 pm

    I just saw your note now, Donna. Thanks so much for taking the time to visit and comment. I appreciate your kind words. Yes, I love what’s happening here and am honored to be a part of it. Cheers.

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