A host of characters grapple with the legacy of war, religious obsessions, surreal instances of violence, and an enduring guilt in this collection by a writer who was born in Yugoslavia and now lives in Canada.
Novakovich’s (Shopping for a Better Country, 2012, etc.) new collection abounds with stories of displacement. Characters leave the countries in which they were born to seek their fortunes elsewhere; religious pilgrims suffer misadventures as they grapple with their own mortality; and people find themselves taking on the personality traits of those they encounter under bizarre circumstances. The aftermath of war—whether those that took place in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s or the second world war decades earlier—leaves a heavy mark on many, which sometimes manifests as realistic depictions of trauma and grief and sometimes ventures into the surreal and mystical. In “Dutch Treat,” a former U.N. peacekeeper encounters the survivor of a massacre in Srebrenica years later in New York. The two engage in a wary back-and-forth, as the former peacekeeper is both overcome by guilt and begins to take on qualities of the other man’s paranoia. That kind of strange obsessiveness lends many of these stories a welcome unpredictability, whether Novakovich is writing about a grieving family or a soccer hooligan who seeks to make amends for his role in a horrific act of revenge. And some of the observations made throughout the book are wonderfully succinct. In one story of an interpreter caught up in war, for example, Novakovich summarizes the protagonist’s predicament neatly: “It seemed incongruous to Ana that these men would have childhood memories.” In a different story, another character offers a more humanistic take on things, saying, “All we are is soul.” The stories told here span the gulf between the two statements.
These often haunting stories of violence, faith, and disconnection make for a memorable voyage into a number of unsettled minds.