In Stephen Henighan’s fourth collection of short fiction, Canada is a remote presence. The stories unfold elsewhere: a research outpost on the Barents Sea, ESL schools across Europe and Latin America, and professional conferences in southeastern Africa. Even for the Canadians in the book, Canada is less often home than a base from which to plan the next trip.
Henighan’s characters long for fulfilling relationships but are averse to settling down. There’s a fair amount of sex in this collection – not all of it good, but rarely meaningless. For Irina, the detached and practical protagonist of the opening story, sexual encounters are complicated by language. Born just before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in a closed Russian city full of research scientists, Irina has learned to downplay her Bashkir heritage and language. After she moves to Germany, she recognizes the Turkic languages spoken there by other foreigners, and her identity reconfigures around this latent part of her background. “Her previous lovemaking had been in Russian,” Henighan writes. But when Irina sleeps with a Turkish man in Berlin, she is forced to suppress her Russianness: “she had to explain her wishes in workplace German.… He replied in an exalted Turkish, as if she were the virgin bride chosen for him by his family.”
Living abroad provides a perspective through which the home and the self are reimagined as parts of a global body. This is why the young Guatemalan poet in “My Soul Will Be in Paris” tries to insinuate himself into the city’s 1920s surrealist circles: “in Guatemala City, he had been a provincial poet; only in Paris could he be a Latin American writer.”
The story “Where Are You in America” introduces Philip, a thirtysomething international aid worker and experienced traveller. He speaks fluent Spanish and passable Portuguese and understands the exploitative power structures that facilitate his unimpeded movement as a white man through the so-called Global South. But when he travels with his Jamaican-born partner, Doreen, his presence has an unintended effect on the way others see her. Doreen is an engineer who owns a condo in Toronto, but as a black woman accompanying a white foreigner through Cuba and Mozambique, she is often assumed to be a local prostitute. Five stories about Doreen and Philip comprise the second half of Blue River and Red Earth, amounting to a non-linear novella.
Henighan switches between first- and third-person narration in prose that is consistently lean and precise, and this uniformity of style anchors the otherwise unmoored collection. The author’s use of unannounced temporal leaps is sometimes distracting and disorienting, especially in stories already crowded with international place names and languages. Sometimes it’s not clear until well into a story that it’s taking place in two timelines many years and many kilometres apart.
As much as place – or placelessness – is central to Blue River and Red Earth, it’s not the settings themselves the book explores; these stories are more about how different surroundings complicate existing relationships. The unpredictability of watching Doreen and Philip navigate the social minefield of the post-colonial, globalized world is both uncomfortable and fascinating.
“Blue River Hotel” and “The Secrets of Veronika” involve middle-aged western men abroad falling for young cosmopolitan women. This trope is worn out, and Henighan seems to know it. The narrator of the latter story has a habit of introducing female characters by describing their appearance, a tendency that is almost entirely absent elsewhere in the collection, suggesting it should be ascribed to the character not the author.
Henighan plays into ascertainable archetypes enough to build expectations, but ultimately disrupts them with the messiness of contemporary life. These romances don’t blossom into pure love or devolve into tragedy, but unfold erratically over decades. After pursuing a long, fruitless affair with a German woman his own age, the narrator of “The Secrets of Veronika” regretfully rebuffs the affections of a brilliant Bulgarian university student. “Having balked at trading authority for love,” he reflects, “I was left with neither.” Meanwhile his acquaintance, Veronika, marries one of her language students, supports him through university, then uses his family connections to secure herself a better career. “Even love has its motives,” she tells him.
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 the people live, conflicted and confused.