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A Grave in the Air

by Stephen Henighan

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Sweeping from Nazi Germany in 1939 to the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, Stephen Henighan's A Grave in the Air is a masterful sequence of stories. In these tales, dominated by Central and Eastern European themes, readers are transported across borders and into the lives of characters who have something serious at stake, people enmeshed in acts of destruction, and people redeemed through honour and grace. These narratives bear Henighan's cosmopolitan stamp, but they do not take place in a sanitized global village. There are no stereotypes on which to hang a plot, no filtered sense of the human condition. There are stories of betrayal, such as "Beyond Bliss", where a young British woman uses sex, duplicity and her connections to an Eastern European exile to become a partner in a Canadian literary press; luminous studies of introspection and character, such as "Freedom Square", in which a Romanian photographer's desire to escape her mother country yields to surrender to it; and ironic stories of historical displacement, such as "A Sense of Time", in which an erotic memory takes life for a Canadian expatriate in England, and "Duty Calls", where a Hungarian Montrealer experiencing divorce becomes the unsuspecting catalyst for another couple's commitment. The two long stories, which bracket the collection, summarize its themes. In the opening story, a British businessman relies on the sporting spirit to try to avert the onset of the Second World War; in the title story, a weary foreign correspondent, shaken by his encounter with a band's disturbing groupie, must face his own truth about ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Whether moving readers to reflection or providing engaging entertainment, Henighan's prose is sharp and clean. Once again, he is as instructive in his understanding of peoples and cultures as he is instinctive in taking us inside the worlds that shape them.… (more)
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I've often loved reading novels and short stories that show how war can impact families, relationships, and societies. Although the short stories often do not provide the reader with in-depth war strategy and in-the-moment events, whether it is World War II or the Bosnian-Serbian conflict of the 1990s, the impact of war is palatable in the lives of the characters Henighan created.
The book of short stories starts off with "The Killing Past," which examines the impact of one woman's story about Bartholomew's ancestor upon her nephew. The obsession it becomes for Bart is phenomenal.

In "Miss Why," Agnieszka is an inquisitive youth growing up in Poland at a time when the nation is moving away from socialism toward more Western ideals. While she struggles to find her place in society, she meets a man with a similar outlook on the Western ideals taking over their society. It was interesting to see how they coped with the transformation of their society, though there really was no resolution in this short story, which left me a bit disappointed.

"Duty Calls" follows Tibor, who is recently divorced, and his relationship with a woman he has not seen in many years and his disillusionment with himself since his divorce. This story is not every uplifting, but it does deal with how a man, who sees himself as an outsider, will act to gain acceptance.

In "Beyond Bliss," which was my favorite of the short stories, Vivian compromises her integrity to get what she wants. To help her friend, Ray, build his publishing house in Canada, she gains the trust of Erich, a controversial author. Vivian, another character who feels like an outsider in Canada because she is British, uses her ambition to find her place in the world.

I also really enjoyed "A Sense of Time," "Freedom Square," and "Nothing Wishes to Be Different" because the show the reader a series of relationships that change between former students at university because of a single event, a relationship between a mother and daughter because of the daughter's summer job, and the relationships between a father and mother and their children when the father makes one fateful and personal decision about his own life.

While this is not one of my favorite short story collections, it does have a great deal going for it. It examines how war in the present and past can have an impact on someone, even if they are not directly involved in a conflict. Some of the characters are quirky and bit out there, but others are carefully nuanced. ( )
  sagustocox | Oct 5, 2008 |
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Sweeping from Nazi Germany in 1939 to the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, Stephen Henighan's A Grave in the Air is a masterful sequence of stories. In these tales, dominated by Central and Eastern European themes, readers are transported across borders and into the lives of characters who have something serious at stake, people enmeshed in acts of destruction, and people redeemed through honour and grace. These narratives bear Henighan's cosmopolitan stamp, but they do not take place in a sanitized global village. There are no stereotypes on which to hang a plot, no filtered sense of the human condition. There are stories of betrayal, such as "Beyond Bliss", where a young British woman uses sex, duplicity and her connections to an Eastern European exile to become a partner in a Canadian literary press; luminous studies of introspection and character, such as "Freedom Square", in which a Romanian photographer's desire to escape her mother country yields to surrender to it; and ironic stories of historical displacement, such as "A Sense of Time", in which an erotic memory takes life for a Canadian expatriate in England, and "Duty Calls", where a Hungarian Montrealer experiencing divorce becomes the unsuspecting catalyst for another couple's commitment. The two long stories, which bracket the collection, summarize its themes. In the opening story, a British businessman relies on the sporting spirit to try to avert the onset of the Second World War; in the title story, a weary foreign correspondent, shaken by his encounter with a band's disturbing groupie, must face his own truth about ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Whether moving readers to reflection or providing engaging entertainment, Henighan's prose is sharp and clean. Once again, he is as instructive in his understanding of peoples and cultures as he is instinctive in taking us inside the worlds that shape them.

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