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Reviews Tue Jun 23 2009

Review: Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon

love and obstacles.jpgLove and Obstacles
by Aleksandar Hemon
(Riverhead Books, 2009)

I will be the first to admit that when we read Aleksandar Hemon's debut novel, Nowhere Man, during our first year of Book Club meetings, I was not the author's biggest fan. I generally like my novels and stories to be imbued with a certain element of concreteness and plausibility; I like to feel a sense of roundedness; I like to believe that if we start out in one place we will eventually get back to that place in one way or another. These are qualities that Nowhere Man does not possess. I do not mean this as a criticism of this book - my literary likes simply did not match up with what Hemon had to offer and I was content for us to go our separate ways. Rare is the author who can execute both styles of writing and execute them well. How wonderful and surprising it was to then find out that in his newly published collection of short stories, Love and Obstacles, Hemon shows that he is indeed that author.

The stories in Love and Obstacles focus on a single narrator's upbringing as a boy in Bosnia and as a man living as an ex-patriot in the United States. So closely does this mirror Hemon's own travels that one cannot help but guess that the author used his own life as fuel for these stories, but nowhere in the book does Hemon suggest that these stories are autobiographical and I'm disinclined to leap to that assumption. Here we have a teenage boy forgoing spending time with his family to forge a connection with a strung out American during a summer vacation in Kinshasa in "Stairway to Heaven." In "Everything," the same boy is later sent on his first journey alone through the country on mission to purchase a freezer chest for his parents, only to fall in love with the married woman staying in the adjacent hotel room. Obsessed with losing his virginity, the narrator knocks on her door and offers her a contraceptive pill, only to have the door shut in his face: "I heard them murmuring conspiratorially, like a husband and wife, and I recognized that love was on the other side, and I had no access to it."

Perhaps one of the most revealing stories is "The Bees, Part I," wherein we learn the story of the narrator's father through the lens of a failed autobiography. The autobiography starts with the proclamation that it was this man's grandfather who brought beekeeping to Bosnia, followed by a detailed explanation of the beekeeping life, but the narrator quickly realizes that this is merely a way for his father to delve into the maladies that plagued their family during the wars: "In an abrupt transition, he asserts that the most successful period of our beekeeping ended in 1942, during World War Two, when we for the first time lost our bees. It is clear that was a major catastrophe for the family, but my father, keeps everything in perspective, probably because of what was going on in the besieged Sarajevo at the time of his writing. There are worse things that can happen to you. A whole family, for example, can perish without a trace, he writes. We didn't perish, which is excellent." Though the story incorporates a hilarious anecdote of the narrator's failed attempt to serve as the star in the film version of his father's life, "The Bees, Part I" remains memorably haunting in its depiction of a man coming to terms with his war-torn life.

Several of the stories in Love and Obstacles do, indeed, deal with the realities of life in a war-stricken country and the effects of living outside that country as an adult, as Hemon himself has experienced. But, far from alienating the reader who does not share his narrator's exact background, the stories in this collection ring true for anyone who has seen the effects of war, both firsthand and abroad; they speak to anyone who has left their country for whatever reason, only to find themselves acting as its representative in their new land; they are as much about the difficulties of being Bosnian and American as they are about the difficulties of being a boy becoming a man. It is this incorporation of the universal that lends the stories of this very specific life the sense of fullness and tangibility that will surely appeal to all readers.

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