Plumb the Depths

The Beautiful Precision of Ethel Rohan’s
Cut Through the Bone

Cut Through The Bone by Ethel Rohan
Reviewed by Melissa Reddish
2010, Dark Sky Books

In Act I of Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is growing increasingly upset at his lack of accomplishment. At sixty years old, he is working on commission, he can’t manage to pay his bills without borrowing money from his neighbor, and his son Biff is working odd jobs on ranches out West, directionless. Willy bemoans the current state of life to his wife, Linda. He has been working his entire life and it has all added up to nothing. Even when they finally pay off their house, there will be nobody to live in it, to which Linda replies, “Well, dear, life is a casting off. It’s always that way.”

Few writers understand this truth better than Ethel Rohan in her collection of stories, Cut Through the Bone. In each story, Rohan explores characters that have spent their lives gathering husbands and lovers and children and limbs and then losing them one by one. Rohan explores each loss deftly, with a depth that hardly seems possible considering each story’s concision. In the story “All There, Waiting,” a husband and wife have lost a child, and the husband cannot understand the wife’s desire to get on with their lives. As she does so well throughout the collection, Rohan transforms an innocuous detail into an emotional revelation for both the character and the reader. “He is craving cheese. String cheese. Something he can peel and peel. He does not want to eat the cheese. He wants to smear the cheese on the mural, over the boy, park, fish, and truck.” Some characters seek solace from the emptiness—a grandmother draws a face on a balloon, a woman orders lifelike baby dolls to care for, another woman wears bright red lipstick and a wig to appease the woman in her chest—while others face the void head-on, like the narrator of “On the Loose,” a pitch-perfect story that evokes a scene of random cruelty and terror.

To my surprise, I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy not so much in the subject matter but in the economy of language and intensity of emotion that never veer into melodrama or preciousness. The thirty stories in this collection take up merely 112 pages, and though many could be considered flash fiction, averaging between one and a half to two pages, each story contains a clear character arc and an emotional revelation. The joy of peeling away each emotional layer approaches the divine origin of James Joyce’s epiphany. In fact, the title of the collection, Cut Through the Bone, is an eloquent exhortation to all writers to slice into the very core of their characters in order to reach that empty space we try to fill with the meaningless chatter of late-night television and summer blockbusters and endless Twitter updates. Do not shy away from the emptiness that thrums in all of us. Plumb the depths and see what soft-bodied animals emerge.

In 2008, Melissa graduated with an MFA from American University. Her work has appeared in Wazee and Flywheel Magazine. Melissa is also co-faculty editor of Echoes and Visions, the student literary publication of Wor-Wic Community College.

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  • Ethel Rohan

    Melissa, thank you so much for this careful read and generous review of Cut Through the Bone. I especially appreciate your call to not shy away from the emptiness that thrums in all of us and that beautiful last line. Thanks again.