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Contact Tracing

By Paul Wilner

San Francisco–based author Ethel Rohan’s new story collection recalls the dreams and nightmares of her Irish youth.

Author Ethel Rohan (Photo by Justin Yee)

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously observed.

Ethel Rohan’s new short story collection In the Event of Contact (Dzanc Books), helps trace the byways and difficulties of the search for human connection, even under sometimes tragic circumstances.

A teenage boy in Ireland tries to emulate Sherlock Holmes to solve the disappearance of his best friend’s brother, only to find that no good deed goes unpunished.

An elderly crossing guard gets blindsided by a truck, sparking an infatuation with his much-younger caregiver — and anger when his affection is not reciprocated.

And the title tale deals with 12-year-old Ruth, one of three identical triplets, who suffers from a phobia about being touched. When her parents hire an older man to be her “special needs’’ tutor, his boundary-crossing ways create unintended consequences.

In the Event of Contact (Dzanc Books) Rohan’s new collection connects sympathetic characters and complex themes.

In each story, Rohan’s prose shines with deft eloquence, depicting her characters with compassion, leavened by insight. (The book has won praise from author Roddy Doyle, who called it “a terrific collection; gripping, powerful and very moving.”) The San Francisco–based author graduated from the MFA creative writing program at Mills College after emigrating to California from Ireland in 1992. Yet Rohan’s homeland provides a consistent backdrop for much of her narrative.

In the Event of Contact is her fourth short story collection. Her work also includes the 2017 novel The Weight of Him, about an obese father who undertakes a public weight loss campaign after his son commits suicide; and Out of Dublin, a memoir that deals with the abuse she suffered from a family friend, and other complications of family life. In a phone interview, Rohan says she was influenced by Irish forebears like Frank O’Connor, whose story Guests of the Nation portrayed a guard tasked with holding prisoners considered “enemies of the state.” It resonated with her experiences as a teenager in Ireland in the ’80s, following the hunger strikes of Irish republicans. “Here we are, 30 years later, and issues surrounding terrorism are still front and center,” reflects Rohan. “Fact is stranger than fiction.”

“So much of me has never left and will never leave Ireland, when I think of the things that shape and imprint us,’’ she continues. “I wasn’t even conscious of it at the time, but 11 of the 14 short stories in the book are set there. Perhaps having moved away gives me perspective on what feeds my imagination and the stories I want to tell about my beginnings. But I wouldn’t be the writer I am if I hadn’t left.’’

Other literary influences are as diverse as Edna O’Brien, Elizabeth Strout and Raymond Carver.
“Carver was [interested in] relationships and working-class people, and I’m from a working-class background, too. Strout’s work is fascinating for the same reasons — relationships, detail, dialogue — what’s not said, and how hard it is to connect.’’

“The title of my book reflects what I hope my stories do,” Rohan says. “Twist our expectations in surprising ways, and make us think and care in ways we do not dwell on typically.”

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