Ethel Rohan. Queen’s Ferry Press, $16.95 paperback (138p) ISBN 9781938466144
The shells of SUVs on the side of the road, burned for insurance money. Cereal flakes stuck in the folds of a brother’s neck. A grow-your-own-baby gag gift that spills out of its container by morning. These are the details that make Ethel Rohan’s worlds so vivid. They serve not to drive the plot forward, but the mood forward. They show us a character arc without having to tell us. They stop us. They keep us reading. These details are what drew me into Rohan’s previous work, what still draws me into her small fictions in her latest collection Goodnight Nobody.
Goodnight Nobody is a book of loss. Rohan specializes in longing, whether through a teenage girl; a kept woman; or a volunteer soldier. Her characters suffer financial aches, both from lack and from plenty. They suffer expectations from family and from themselves. And the self is who they are always trying to come to terms with and rarely do.
Often her stories are about quiet inner struggles with loud strikes of violence surrounding them. The title story begins with a dead body in a dumpster but spends the majority of its time on the solitude of its main character. While “Bee Killer” is about an unhappy marriage, the story is centered on the husband’s new hobby as a beekeeper and the wife’s hatred of these bees (including the lovely and cringe worthy bonus of a bee’s leg lodged inside her ankle). In “Darkroom,” a photographer trespasses into a giraffe enclosure to get the perfect shot as a way to deal with going blind. In “Flash,” a woman’s nose bleeds every time she goes into her artist’s shed, but this is her escape from financial ruin and a disabled brother she can no longer support. The darkness in these stories is often unexpected and always intriguing. But Rohan makes sure humor is there for balance.
While the premises are always interesting, there are stories in the collection that left me wanting more, mostly when it came to development. Some flash pieces felt like the outlines of great stories. In “The Defiance of Gravity,” for example, I felt I was being told how to read the story, how to understand the character, and I wondered if some of these pieces should have been longer stories instead of flash fiction. There were places where more time on character, image, and action could have led us to those final conclusions.
That being said, many of the stories in Goodnight Nobody do exactly what flash fiction should do. In “Priority” we see one moment in a woman’s life—entertaining a door-to-door knife salesman—that gives us a much larger story. Simply knowing that the woman has forgotten her first husband’s name shows us a whole world. And by the characters’ interaction, in only two pages, we’re left imagining a later conversation with her current husband. We’re left diagnosing her. We understand a life by only seeing a part of it. (September 2013)
Purchase Goodnight Nobody HERE.
Reviewer bio: Christy Crutchfield writes and teaches in Western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Mississippi Review online, Salt Hill Journal, the Collagist, Newfound, and others. Her novel How to Catch a Coyote is forthcoming from Publishing Genius in 2014. Visit her at christycrutchfield.com