Blue River and Red Earth
Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2018
With the density of compressed novels, these eleven stories inhabit their characters in settings from Russia and Romania to Paris, Central America, the Caribbean and southern Africa. In Stephen Henighan’s finest book to date, life choices strain against the pressure of history, and place acquires the force of myth. Along the canals of St. Petersburg, a young Russian Muslim scientist grapples with the conflicting demands of her mind and her body. Drawn together by a shared fascination with Romania, a group of friends are startled when one of them makes an incomprehensible marriage. A fledgling poet in Paris is uncertain whether he is seeking art or love. Two decades in a wayward Canadian’s relationship with a family-run hotel in Guatemala reveal irresistible emotional bonds as well as divisive truths about that country’s civil war.
The protagonists of the last five stories in the collection, an interracial Canadian couple, uncertain of their reception by others, confront love, death, and the differences that both pull them together and drive them apart. These stories explore how we become part of the places we do not belong, and how long-distance emotional ties change us.
In these gracefully written stories, rootlessness and unpredictability provide a window on the confusion of being a global citizen…. Situated within a Canadian literary scene in which prevailing power structures are undergoing a long overdue, although sometimes reductive, reckoning, these stories strive for much-needed nuance. Henighan isn’t staking the moral high ground but bringing readers down to earth where people live, conflicted and confused.
It is rare to read stories that carry us away to other places and other geographies, and then reveal to us our naïve notions of morality and exoticism and eros. This is fine stuff—a quest for the ambiguous heart of the matter. Exhilarating.
Blue River and Red Earth is a bravura performance, a fast-paced, intensely readable, and profoundly moral story collection that takes as its milieu and subject matter the perilous state of identity and human relations in a globalized world. Over and over, Henighan ejects his characters from the safe and the known into foreign territory where they must learn to negotiate the fault lines of colour, language, ethnicity, gender, class, and politics. Most astonishing is Henighan’s ability to infuse the intimate with the historical and political and his ease with settings as diverse as the Russian Arctic and the Guatemala highlands, Toronto’s Caribbean neighbourhoods and South Africa’s Indian Ocean beaches. The lesson is the self is always local and is everywhere under threat. Stephen Henighan is one writer looking straight into the mouth of the tiger.
Henighan’s stories are impressively varied, introducing us to an astonishing array of characters, dilemmas and locales, and are propelled by prodigious knowledge —of post-Soviet closed cities, Romanian history, the Guatemalan civil war, or the Mozambican liberation struggle. The stories collected in Blue River and Red Earth are ambitious, cosmopolitan, and quixotic; their real theme is the emotional errancy of their outsider characters.