Review: Hard to Sayby Amanda Kimmerly • 06.23.2011
Since publishing “Illustrated Girl” in late 2010, we’ve been following Ethel Rohan with sniper eyes. She’s exploding. The evidence: her latest short story collection, Hard to Say, was published by Pank as the third addition to their “Little Books” series. “Little” is accurate, if you’re measuring size. The stories individually range from 1,000-1,500 words, roughly a page and a half on a word document. But do not judge them by stature. Little often means powerful. Think Brown Recluse. Think hand grenade. Think Bruce Lee. Similarly, Rohan’s streamlined sentences bite, detonate, and break a tough surface with what feels like a one-inch punch.
The 15-story collection chronicles a first-person account of one young woman’s understanding of a confusing adolescence in Dublin, Ireland. Though this covers alcohol dependency, a distant father, silent brother, and frisky neighbors, most of the stories detail the tense relationship between the narrator and her ill mother. Rohan poetically describes brain deterioration, how it not only corrodes the body, the eyes, a person’s memory, but also a family:
“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.”
(From “Stung,” first published in Pear Noir!)
Her imagery and metaphors could crush you.
Half of these stories were published by various magazines first before making their way into “Hard To Say.” It seems logical to band them together, too, as they all share the same narrator, setting and characters.
However, I think in this case, because the content is so similar, it resembles a long-winded narrative, using “and then this happened, and this…and this, and this, and this,” technique, with each “this” being a new story. One reviewer advised to read this collection sporadically for reasons of the content being too painful. I agree with the first part. For the greatest effect, read them one at a time, maybe even on different days. Fiction should hurt, and the impact here is much greater when contained as one concentrated, quick punch.