January 2012
A review of

Cut Through the Bone

by Ethel Rohan

Central Question: How do you rein in a plot that moves forward and backward at once?
Setting of story: a spa; Time of story: 11 a.m.; Set piece of note: a prosthetic leg leaning against the wall; Birthplace of author: Dublin, Ireland; Current residence of author: San Francisco; Year author quit watching television: 1998; Author’s feelings on short stories: “I want goosebumps on my mind. To hear and feel the rhythm, the beat. To have the experience build and pull back, build and pull back, build and pull back again and again and again until climax and delicious fade. I want to want to hold the book afterwards, to feel grateful, opened, sated.”

“I know this sounds weird,” says an amputee to his massage therapist in the title story of Ethel Rohan’s collection Cut Through the Bone, “but could you also massage where my leg used to be? It’s the phantom stuff, I can still feel it.” Matt, the amputee, might as well be speaking about the story itself, which is teeming with ghosts. Little does he know, for example, that the therapist, Joyce, is mourning her own loss: she sees her deceased son, Tom, in her patient. Matt and Joyce are both suffering, and each is able to mitigate the other’s pain. “As she worked,” Rohan writes, “everything in the small, dim space took on a haunted feel—the music and candles, and gardenia and sandalwood scents. The last time she had touched Tom, held him for any length, was at his high school graduation ceremony.”

The story lasts only two pages, but it is so driven by what has happened off the page, or before the reader arrived on the scene, that the plot moves forward and backward simultaneously. Joyce and Matt bang on the locked door of the past while being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the present. “She stared at the empty space, her heart knocking against her ribcage, and reminded herself to breathe,” Rohan writes. “If you’d prefer not, that’s cool,” Matt says.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Christopher Boucher

Christopher Boucher is the author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, a novel (Melville House, 2011). He teaches writing and literature at Boston College.

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