Out of Dublin by Ethel Rohan

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter

Out of Dublin by Ethel Rohan

Compelling is the first word that came to mind when I began reading Ethel Rohan’s 10,000-word memoir, Out of Dublin (Shebooks, 2014). Her story begins with images from her childhood—plastic bags filled with belongings carted across country, summer camping by the sea, ice cream cones with “sticks of chocolate” and fizzy drinks, watching planes take off from the top of the family sedan, and good night kisses “laced with smoke and the tang of hard spirits.”

Rohan’s story is a non-linear narration. She time-travels back and forth, allowing the reader to see the chronology of her life through glimpses and remembrances: “As a girl I often danced alone, usually to the music in my mind, my moves stolen from TV and ballerinas inside music boxes. I was helium. Stardust.” Vivid scenes showcase characters that are rich and rotund, dressed and addressed and seen through lovely turns of phrase and metaphor.

“[Y]our tired, shaky, blue-veined hands serving up bowls of the steaming chicken soup to my sisters and me, and as we’d finished eating, … you said you’d put poison in the soup, that we’d all be better off dead…” Moment-by-moment and scene-by-scene, Rohan peels back the layers revealing the darker side of a loving family living, coping, and surviving their mother’s mental illness and more.

Motifs of skeletons and lost bones flow organically throughout the story alluding to fleeting moments of fragility and innocence lost— “Waiting through the days and nights for you to come home, for you to be found, I shook so hard I felt sure my skeleton would come undone, terrified you would kill yourself…” and later, “I tried to tell Dad the secret picking at my bones.”

The narrator’s voice is credible throughout the entire story and is especially heart-cut when she recalls the descent of her father into illness. “I yearned to hear certain things from him, like I love you. I’m proud of you. Thank you. I couldn’t bear the thoughts of a tracheostomy taking away his ability to speak, of the hope of his ever saying those things of the heart gone forever.”

Yet her story is hopeful. For this family happiness might be fleeting, but it abounds in moments captured with a beautiful cadence that transcends and small moments tantalizingly shown like the narrator’s father teaching her how to sweep a floor.

Dad had always said if you were going to do a job, do it right. He had taught me to sweep a floor, had maintained there was only one right way to do the job. Start in this far corner, he instructed, and work your way around to the last corner, tackle every inch, and a broom is better than a brush. He had also taught me how to waltz and to drive a car. Every time I went wrong at sweeping, waltzing, or driving, I would apologize and he would say, “Don’t keep saying sorry.”


I would never be great at the waltz and proved much worse at the driving, but I can sweep a floor like I’ve licked every inch. I have always loved to sweep floors, especially with a broom, savoring the sure feel of the wooden handle in my hands, the rhythmic scratch of the straw needles, the gathering pile of dirt, the making clean.

And not a word is wasted. “For a long time I didn’t sleep, thinking how I hadn’t sang, how I hadn’t gotten heard.” Rohan’s selections are alluring in their brevity, pulling in theme (such as isolation and silence) and emotion between the spaces.

Also noteworthy is how the language also changes throughout the course of the memoir. There are times when the narrator yearningly addresses a second person—her mother in flashback. Other moments are realized through a stream-of-consciousness style where Rohan narrates her backstory in a page-long sentence as if she is speaking her remembrances aloud in a hurried and held breath.

In Out of Dublin, Ethel Rohan lays it all out—bare and unflinching in its humanity. Monsters do exist in different forms and danger is everywhere “even in the smallest of things.” She keeps the reader on a need-to-know basis, curiously omitting the details of ordinary life milestones, as her story seems to be about her own childhood closure. With a quiet gratefulness, Rohan recalls the best and brightest and the worst moments of her coming of age, of the people and places she loves and the cement that binds family. She sifts and salvages the lost and gleaming pieces, the scattered and broken parts and leaves the reader totally engrossed until the very end.


Ethel Rohan was the winner of Ireland’s 2013 Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award. Her work has or soon will appear in The New York Times, World Literature Today, PEN America, Tin House Online, The Irish Times, BREVITY Magazine, The Rumpus and Toasted Cheese. She is also the author of the chapbook Hard to Say and two story collections, Goodnight Nobody and Cut Through the Bone, named a 2010 Notable Story Collection by the Story Prize. Rohan was a former book reviewer for the New York Journal of Books and received her MFA in fiction from Mills College, CA. Rohan was raised in Dublin and presently writes in San Francisco. She is a member of The Writer’s Grotto and PEN America.

Website: ethelrohan.com
Twitter: @ethelrohan
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pencilShelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com



Ethel Rohan

The waitress brings Elizabeth a glass of water with lemon. She wants red wine. It’s too early for wine. She returns to her book—The English Patient, which only adds to her longing—and waits.

He arrives at the restaurant dressed in a yellow raincoat. She checks the sky; it won’t rain for hours yet. If he can look like that then she can have wine. She signals the waitress. He places his keys on the white tablecloth, and gives her that disapproving look. Her gaze jumps to his germ-laden keys, and back to him. His face is milky pale and eyes cold. She recalls him sucking her nipples, and looks away. He doesn’t remove his raincoat, yellow as mustard.

Beyond the window, an Alsatian as big as a baby bear is tied by its leash to the bus-stop pole. The dog sniffs passersby and whimpers low in its throat. She returns her attention to her lunch guest. He’s come straight from the Botanic Gardens where he tends the tropical plants and he smells of earth and green. His fingernails are caked with dirt. Once, they made love inside the Gardens’ greenhouse, secreted inside the forest of potted plants. It takes all her strength not to tell him to remove his coat and go wash his hands.

They discuss the sale of the holiday cottage, the only thing they legally share. It is white-washed and covered in green moss and is the only place that’s ever felt like home; she wishes she could afford to buy him out. His dirty fingernail pushes his lemon-rind into his soda. She winces. The previous night, mosquitoes feasted on the backs of her legs and she struggles not to scratch, not to order another glass of syrupy, plum-flavored wine.

He sucks on his lemon rind. They met at a friend’s fortieth birthday bash, a casino on a boat in the bay. She beat him at poker with a Queen of Hearts. Outside, a woman appears next to the Alsatian, feeding it from a greasy brown paper bag. The dog’s tail thumps the ground like a jump-rope, its eyelids drooping with pleasure. They ended when she found out about his affair with some skeletal twenty-nothing intern at the Gardens.

When the waitress returns to take their lunch order, she asks for the check.

“I can’t do this,” she tells him.

The waitress brings the check on a white plate with three tiny chocolate chip cookies. His dirty hand paws all three. Down the back of the nursery is his tools trunk—if he still keeps it there—and inside is a manicure set she gave him, used on him. Once, she thought she could die for him.

She pays, and hurries into her coat. He’s still sitting, chewing.

“Call me,” he says. “Let’s get this finished.”

The bells of a nearby church ring out for noon, their peals echoing like a gong. Overhead the storm clouds gather. Used to be, she’d think that meant something too.

Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, Ethel Rohan received her MFA in fiction from Mills College, California. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from such journals as elimae, PANK, DOGZPLOT, Storyglossia, Word Riot, mud luscious, Ghoti Magazine, Anemone Sidecar, The Los Angeles Review, and (So New) Necessary Fiction, among many others. Her blog is Straight From The Heart In My Hip. E-mail: ethelrohan[at]gmail.com