Book Review

My partner asked recently what I look for most when reading short story collections. What’s most compelling? Is it character? Playfulness in form or structure? The cohesive whole created by the range of stories? It’s never just one thing, is it? The voice and humor in Bryan Washington’s collection Lot blew me away. The granular detail—such precise, sustained observation—in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina created a wonderful depth. The intentionally abbreviated snapshots in Dorthe Nors’s Wild Swims gave me a sense of awe. I know it sounds simplistic, but I told my partner that most often I read stories for the mind behind the work, the recognition of emotional truths, a certain kind of honesty, even humility. Maybe it’s a vulnerability in stripping characters of their defenses and edging closer to revealing them. Maybe I relate to the doubt and wonder at the heart of so many good stories, the uncertainty and not-knowing that so many of us keep hidden during our days.

Ethel Rohan’s story collection In the Event of Contact, winner of the Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize, provides that necessary window into vulnerability that feels truthful and compelling to this reader. In her smart, accomplished collection, set largely in Ireland, Rohan creates generous stories of heartbreak and indecision, of displaced people navigating failure and a diminishing sense of belonging.

Rohan—an Irish ex-pat living in San Francisco and also author of the novel The Weight of Him and the previous story collections Goodnight Nobody and Cut Through the Bone—captures a beautiful sense of yearning in her characters, a sense that life is happening elsewhere, or in the case of the story “F is for Something”—which focuses on Father Quinlan, an Irish priest wrestling with dementia—life has already happened and moments now are arranged in an inaccessible pattern. (“Something important he needed to do. Something. It would come to him.”)

In the Event of Contact is a solid, moving collection that explores relationships over long narrative arcs. Rohan achieves a great depth here, giving characters room to explore their often-fraught emotional landscapes. Among the fourteen stories, readers find ex-pats and disappointed Irish mothers, teen detectives and women attempting to reframe the past, survivors and adult children on their annual trips home. Many characters straddle two worlds, not belonging in either.

In “Rare, But Not Impossible,” Margo visits her parents in Ireland, disappointing them with her reproductive choices. In “Blindsided,” a crossing guard hit by a truck yearns for a relationship with an already-attached caregiver. In “At the Side of the Road,” an Irish fruit-seller explores her teenage longings. In “Everywhere She Went,” a woman is obsessed with her kidnapped childhood friend. In “Any Wonder Left,” three sisters try to clear out their parents’ home after their father’s death. Families here are fractured, or not quite connecting, reaching but in many ways still alone. Disappointment and resignation come through poignantly. I admired the compassion Rohan afforded her characters.

I also found myself drawn to Rohan’s surprising language throughout, her narrators’ true-feeling observations and unexpected comparisons. From the title story, for example: “Dad’s eyes paled to a lesser blue. He looked pained, as if some animal were lurking beneath the table, gnawing on his toes.” Or in “Into the West,” a patient is “holding the teabag by its white thread and plunging it in and out of the water, as if repeatedly saving it.” Such sharp details, unexpected and unique, set the collection apart.

Rohan often harnesses surprising language in character descriptions as well. In “At the Side of the Road,” for example: “He strutted toward her, a gummy, twitchy fella with a bloated face and mad, dilated pupils.” The energy here feels infectious. In “Collisions,” eyes are shimmering gold “like the throats of the hummingbirds on my parents’ bedroom wallpaper,” and in “Any Wonder Left,” a woman’s ankles are “pale and plump as halibut.” My favorite may be from “Into the West,” when a man’s large eyes are described so unexpectedly as “the color of wet acorns.” Who else might think to pair the adjective “wet” with “acorns?” And yet, we know precisely what she means.

Beyond unexpected descriptions, I also felt rewarded by a number of searing, sobering lines, often achieved through characters ruminating and processing. In “Rare, But Not Impossible,” ex-pat daughter Margo considers young protesters: “To be ordinary and discounted, and to dare to stand up to that much power, it was risky, remarkable. It could crush you.” Later her thoughts fall more directly on her Irish mother: “Margo’s hurt and anger softened. Mam couldn’t ever concede that the church and state had played and cheated women since time immemorial. It would call into question her entire existence.” Rohan effectively draws us into Margo’s emotions, having readers experience such insights as Margo does. Sometimes such insights arrive as truly heartbreaking dialogue, as when Mam asks, “Did your dad and I do something wrong? Is that why you don’t want kids?” The stories, while controlled and carefully orchestrated, allow the power of such lines to strike and then resonate.

I realize that packing a review with many luminous lines may in a way be cheating (a show-and-tell of my favorite lines in the book). I’ll just say there’s much to admire in Rohan’s collection. And perhaps leave you with one last passage that echoed thematically throughout many stories; this also comes from “Rare, But Not Impossible”: “Her whole life, people criticized her voice—too posh for her Northside, working-class neighborhood when she was a girl; not Irish enough in New York City; and too American in Ireland. No matter where she was, she never sounded like she belonged.” So many people in this collection experience a sense of not belonging. Luckily, in Rohan they find a sharp and generous observer willing to give voice to their longing.

About the Reviewer

Corey Campbell's short fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Story, The Gettysburg Review, Colorado Review, Salamander, and the anthology Buffalo Cactus and Other New Stories from the Southwest. She has received support from the Sewanee Writers' Conference, the University of Houston, and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In 2021, she was awarded the Larry Levis Postgraduate Prize in Fiction from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.