Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hard to Say by Ethel Rohan

Hard to Say by Ethel Rohan  (2011, a collection of short stories)

"History was my favorite subject.   I felt this mad fascination with the past, with a long, long time ago.   I never felt like I belonged in my time, in the twentieth  century, and sometimes imagined I was from another era, a time-traveler stuck in  the here and now."-from "Passages"

On March 28 I read one of the greatest short stories I have ever read in my life, "Beast and the Bear" by Ethel Rohan.   I was completely stunned by this story.    Normally I trust my own judgement but in this case I wanted to be sure I was not over reacting so I emailed a link to the story to a blogger friend of long standing with impeccable taste and she was as blown away by the story as I was.   We talked about what stories we could for sure say where better than it and we had to reach to the very greatest writers of short stories to come with some examples.   I know this sounds hyperbolic but it is how I feel.   Lots of things can happen in peoples lives but I would not be at all surprised if Rohan were not one day considered among the greatest short story writers of all time.   Maybe someone will do an Irish Quarter type event 25 years from now and include her as one of the  writers and someone will wonder who Mel u that predicted her success long ago was.  

There are sixteen stories in Hard to Say, my strategy  on collections of short stories of late has been to read all of them while posting on more than half  of them.  I will just post briefly on the stories followed by a few concluding remarks.   The stories are interconnected and share a comman narrator but they can all be read with great enjoyment one at a time and most were published separately.   The more you read on in her collection, the more you understand the stories you have previously read.

"Crust" (6 pages)

Is told by a woman, looking back on her childhood.   Her aunt told her that she never slept right as a child.   She asks her father why but he could not remember.   "His hair gritted, more yellow than gray under the kitchen's dim lights, a scarf of dust under the neck of the naked bulb.  I went inside his mind and poked around, a stick at a strange  at a strange, sodden bag.   Thus prodded, he recalled a rare skin condition that lasted past my first birthday-a seeping brown crust that covered my body.  How I picked at that crust, picked and picked".  The story is about her recolllection of her disease, the scabs that formed on her body and the special baths her father gave her for a year.   Her brother loved to pick at her scabs.   For years now she has been trying to quiet her mind, so she could sleep, using a multitude of chemical aids.   She has night mares that a crust is forming on her skin at night and she has to cut herself to drain the scabs.   She dreams that bright blood is flowing out of her mouth.  Her dreams take her back to almost a primodal prehuman emerging from the ocean stage.   This might be a nightmare or a daymare or a vision of what is behind a door we should not open.  

"Corruptionists" (7 pages)

"Corruptionists"   opens with the  narrator's mother in the hospital dying, her aunt is brewing tea in their dirty kitchen.    Her mother got blood poising after surgery to stop her from hemorrhaging from her "woman's parts".   Her mother had six children even though she should have medically stopped with the first one.    The narrator's grandmother awakes her and her sister and tells them their  mother will not live to the morning.   I love these lines

"I hated how Granny said "safe departure".  As if there could be anything safe about dying.  As if mother would wait with her suitcases alone in the dark on a fog-filled platform for death".

Their mother recovers and comes home.     She is not the same, she drinks taller and taller glasses of brandy and talks to invisible friends.   Sometimes things turn ugly and her in visible friends smash up the furniture.     This story is about what happen when you ruin God's plans.

There is a depth and a compression of meaning in this story that transcends my ability to convey it.  There is pain and power in  this story.     We wonder so much what will happen to the young narrator.

"Stung"  (8 pages)

"Disease ate away at Mother's eyes.   A slow killer, Retinitis Pigmentosa took its sweet time, liked to nibble and pick.   Her pale blues in grave danger, like two dangling buttons about to fall from a coat and into the gutter"

Patterns begin to emerge here, sick mothers, daughters made adults to soon, diseases of a creeping destructive sort, a disordered household, random pain.  The narrator hears the bells of the ice cream man outside and asks her mother for some coins.   While groping about to find them the mother is stung by a wasp, an event she blames on her daughter.   Her mom screams at her to get out and she plots how to steal some money from her mother so she can buy ice cream tomorrow.     She begins to dream of the woman in the moon, she longs to escape to a mystical place where she can never be found.   Her mother interrupts  her thoughts by asking her if it is bees or wasps that die when they stink someone.   The ending really is  brilliant, it telescopes years of dysfunctionality  past and future in a few lines.

"Robbed"  (6 pages)

So far all of our stories are held together via the narrator, a young girl from a family with some serious problems.   As this remarkable story begins, our narrator is outside the  local corner store only to come upon a robbery in progress.    Three young robbers are holding up place.    To her they seem like chimps in a cage at feeding time.   One of the men jumps over the counter and hits the clerk on the head with a bottle.   They begin grabbing things from the shelves.   As they rush out she goes in.  The clerk, maybe he is the owner, is staggering about unable to speak with blood oozing out of his head.    The scene of the robbery comes to haunt the girl.   The consequences of the robbery are expressed so  beautifully at first you do not realize what a terrible meaningless thing has happened to the narrator and the store clerk.   She still goes to the store to get her mother's cigarettes and beer.  One wonders what kind of parent would let her go there again and maybe we know the answer.

Entrance to Newgrange
"Passages" (9 pages)

OK I know I am going to like this story as soon as I hear it is about a visit to Newgrange, my near number one spot in all the world to go to one day.   I wish so much I was along on the field trip our narrator, growing older now, took with her school mates in her Catholic school to Newgrange.   Newgrange is older than the pyramids and Stone Hedge.   The narrator also has a kind of freedom being on a school field trip.  I think Rohan has caught perfectly the excitement of a first school field trip for a young girl based on seeing the reactions of my three daughters, also all enrolled in Catholic schools,  on their first field trips.    Our youngest was very insistent that the school had a rule that no mothers or yayas (servant for a child) were allowed along on the trip.   Anyway back to "Passages" where our narrator, I  like her for her sheer spunk, has stolen some money from her father for her pocket money for the day.     As the school bus passes through the country side, the girls are all from the big city,  laugh at and make faces at the country people.   The narrator is overwhelmed with a feeling of shame for participating in this.   She has gained wisdom from her pain.  The events on the bus seem quite credible.   We arrive at Newgrange and the narrator tries to imagine the people who built it picturing the world of now.      As the bus leaves our narrator wishes she could stay at Newgrange, how much she hates to return home.  Newgrange is Eden, home is the world after the fall.   This is a perfect story, it captures wonderfully the feeling of the narrator.   One of the things I really like about this collection is you can see the narrator gaining wisdom, a dark kind  but real as that of  sun lite worlds.   The sun only really shines at the heart of Newgrange once a year.   

"Wizards"  (9 pages)

As the stories proceed to pound more and more on us, we learn darker and darker secrets about our narrator's life, things we maybe wish we did not know.  The story starts out with our narrator playing Wizards, a dress up wave your wand around sort of game, which takes a different turn when the boy Richie points his wand at the girl's middle and orders her "to pull down my knickers, to show him mine, I refused".   Richie proceeds to beg and plead so she consents, no touching allowed.   It turns out this is not as big a deal to her as it should be as Richie's own father has been molesting her with his fingers for some time now.    We see how the abusive family situation has lead to this, if we think about it a bit.   I will leave the rest of the plot untold but it is really a fascinating  marvelously  perceptive story about the tragic consequences the destruction of the self esteem of a young girl can have as she matures.

"Split"  (17 pages)

"Split" is the longest and perhaps the darkest story in Hard to Say.   The condition of the mother is getting worse, she is nearly blind now.     Her invisible friends have stopped visiting and now invisible intruders who have violent fights and play loud music begin to plague the mother.    Monsters begin to climb out of the furniture.    The mother will scream at any one who suggests the visitors are not real and her and the father in the story, not a big presence in the stories but he is there, fight more and more.   The fights are followed by silences that can last for months.      More and more her almost blind mother finds her way to the pubs at night.   One night she does not return, then two days go buy and she has not come back.   An almost viscous miasma of darkness begins to descend on the narrator as her mother spends months in a mental hospital in a straight jacket with the father insuring everyone she will just fine.   The pain in the closing lines is hard to bear.   Some times something so ugly should not be depicted so beautifully.   The delicate power of Rohan's prose makes us almost complicit in what her words depict.

"Departures" (10 pages)

In this story we are getting ready to go to a party our narrator has organized for herself to observe her soon to happen emigration from Ireland to New York.   with counting down the days until she emigrates from Ireland to New York.   The last party she had was her  twenty first birthday which of course her parents did not attend.  (I cannot help but notice her Mother is sure hanging in there for a long time.)   Her parents and her sisters flew into wild rages when she told them she was leaving, after all she had a decent government job.   She knows that deep down her parents know she is running away from them.   She hopes that her ex-boyfriend, who abused her, will be there and will feel sad when he sees how hot she looks.   She has gone from victim of childhood abuse to loving, she thinks, a man that abused her.   She gets totally drunk at the party and her ex tells her she will be back.   People tell her she will end up with AIDS or in jail as an illegal immigrant.   She does not much care.    I loved it when her sisters gave her as a going away present a hardback copy of Wuthering Heights, a story with an abuser as the love interest (sorry to those who see this book another way).   There is very ironic note of sadness at the end which shows the narrator is still very much not grown up.  

"Peeled" (7 pages)

Our narrator now seems comfortably settled in the United States.    She is enrolled in a drama class.     The instructor is trying to teach them to see more, feel more, and touch things more deeply.   This has nothing to do with the story, or maybe it does to me only but as I read this story I was reminded of an old French/Asian colonial saying:   "Only Laotians can hear rice growing".    The teacher is trying to expand there sense, in an almost Whitman like moment the narrator begins to hear things she never could before, to see what she never could feel, now the teacher, a man, who has taken a special interest in her wants to teacher her to really use her sense of touch.   My first reaction is I know where this is going but I did not.   We are not sure in these stories how aware the narrator is off the consequences of her upbringing for her psyche.     She does know that she knows things other people do not, things that she will not bother to explain to anyone for a very long time but does she know the prize she will pay for this knowledge?    There are beautiful images in this story, for sure the narrator can see deeply into things.     Her relationship to the drama teacher does show a tendqancy to seek out perhaps under it all self seeking guru like figures, often a characteristics of adults who were abused as children.

"Mammy"  (14 pages)

Near fifteen years have gone by and our narrator is living in San Francisco in the last story of Hard to Say.  We do not know how she ended up there but it three thousand miles further from Dublin than New York City.   She has flown back to Dublin three times in that period to visit her parents.    Her mother has now been dying for twenty years plus.   She flies back one final time to visit her mother who is now in a nursing home and is fact soon to die.   Her father has become a quiet man whose passion is tending his garden.   In Ireland it is customary to call your mother, especially when you are young, "Mammy".   While on the flight over the narrator had read a book on the mutilation of young women in Africa.   The sadness of this is magnified when the she reads that the girls call their mothers, "Mammy".   Everything comes full circle at the end of this story, sort off.     Her choice of on plane reading material tells us a lot about her, maybe her horror on the mutilation of the girls is magnified by the memories of her own sexual abuse.

Hard to Say is a great work of the story teller's art.   Individually the prose of the stories is perfect and the insight acute and they for sure give us a lot to think about.  Taken as a whole it a masterful account of mother daughter relationships, of the way in which pain can bring wisdom from the hurt and more from the transcendence of the pain.     It is about growing up, about enduring, about Ireland and  there is a lot of drinking-per my Google research the Irish might be the heaviest drinking country in the world, for sure in the first and second world.)

I liked the narrator, she has her issues but hey so do I, I even came to like the father and I was working on being in sympathy with the mother.   I loved seeing the narrator mature and Rohan is beyond my praise in her handling of this.   

There are six additional stories in the collection, each one a joy to read that takes is further into the family and mind the narrator.  In a relatively short book, "Mother" appears 144 times.

Rohan was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland and now lives in San Francisco, California with her husband and two daughters.

Ethel Rohan is the author of Hard to Say, PANK, 2011 and Cut Through the Bone, Dark Sky Books, 2010, the latter named a 2010 Notable Story Collection by The Story Prize.  She has also published a number of short stories.  

Details about her books can be found on her Amazon page.   Both collections are offered at very fair prices.   

There are links to a number of stories you can read online and more information about her writing career on her webpage.   She has a very interesting blog where she talks about her work.

I will also post on her other collection Cut Through the Bone pretty soon.

"Ethel, I am looking for someone to
write the parts of my story my Daddy
Joseph Sheridan le Fanu never knew about
(there are things a girl does not share with her father)"

Mel u


Unknown said...

Wow! You found her! I'll read more of her works as well.

Mel u said...

Nancy-Ethel Rohan is a great writer for sure

Ethel Rohan said...

Mel, thank you so much for this generous read and review of Hard to Say. I find myself overwhelmed in the best possible way. It was a difficult book to write and to put out into the world. Readers really connect with this little book though and the feedback has been excellent--I remain grateful and humbled.