The Distortions, stories by Christopher Linforth, reviewed by Alexandra Grabbe

In The Distortions, Christopher Linforth transports us to Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina in the aftermath of war. A bit of history to bring the book into focus: when Yugoslavia broke up into six independent countries in the nineties, Serbian nationalism led to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The twelve stories in this collection provoke thought about the psychic toll a war takes on civilians and their descendants, both those who remain in a newly independent country and those who choose to emigrate. We meet young men and women whose relatives lived through that violent period when the world looked away and civil war tore lives apart. The war lasted ten years. Although the main Serbian generals were convicted of war crimes, the conflict remains present as the people we meet struggle with PTSD and learn to live with their guilt at having survived when friends and family perished. Linforth helps us understand the legacy of war.

In the title story, Adam has returned to Zagreb where he was born to help his great-uncle, a former journalist, move to the United States. The uncle argues with a neighbor not about which soccer team will win the World Cup but rather the exact death count in Srebrenica, the town where 8000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were killed in 1995. The plot involves the simple act of crossing borders by tram to locate a birth certificate, required for a new passport, only to discover that the necessary pages have been ripped from the records book because the uncle “fought on the wrong side.” Adam learns of the existence of a cousin, now dead and buried. He accompanies his uncle on a pilgrimage to his son’s unmarked grave. When Adam comments on the grave’s lack of identification, the uncle says, “We remember. That is what is important.”

In “All the Land Before Us,” we visit a pig farm 60 miles from the front line where Croatians are fighting Serbs. Accidentally, the Serbs have shelled a dog pound, and the stray dogs have escaped. The teenage narrator comes of age as he holds his grandfather’s Luger for the first time, has a brief encounter with a woman who is also adrift because of the war, and makes a choice not to finish off a wounded dog his father ordered him to shoot.

In “The Little Girls,” a landmine has killed Mislav’s eleven-year-old daughter Kata, destroying not only his child but his marriage to her mother. On the day of the funeral, he takes a hacksaw to Kata’s five dolls and sets their bodies up in the vegetable garden, facing the copse of beech trees she loved.

Most of the stories are subtle in their approach. The final story is an exception. “May Our Ghosts Stay With Us” begins with the startling sentence, “In the winter of 1991 my grandfather’s charred body appeared on the television news.” In this story, the image of two lovers kissing brings to mind a grandfather’s description of his wife’s hands. This juxtaposition of a current moment in life with a similar moment from the past is part of what makes Linforth’s storytelling so effective.

The taste of a whole region comes through strong and bitter in these pages. Everyone is drinking alcohol, often a plum brandy called šljivovica, and usually too much of it. Linforth deftly describes a lonely field blanketed with snow. The landscape may appear beautiful to the outsider but, to the inhabitants, it summons up memories of the savagery that took place here.

At a time when the war in Ukraine is front and center with Putin’s Kremlin killing civilians on a regular basis, The Distortions carries a particular poignancy. Like the characters in this collection, the Ukrainians who survive the invasion of their homeland will find their lives changed forever. In “Restoration,” Aleksandar’s mother has vanished during the civil war. How very many families lived through similar trauma during the initial exodus from Ukraine last spring. In “Zorana,” it’s the father who broke up the family through his choice to join the Yugoslav People’s Army. “My mother was ashamed,” Zorana reveals. She has decided to never see her father again. Often the characters in The Distortions are trying to locate the graves of loved ones. After witnessing body bags pulled from mass graves in Bucha and Izium on television, we can easily imagine Ukrainians acting the same way once the war ends.  

Lives interrupted. Detours taken. Memories forever tainted.

When disaster strikes, we try to make the best of our situation and carry on. That’s what these characters have learned to do. We cannot read about them without emotion, and Linforth allows us to follow their paths without turning away. He had the courage to get on paper incidents that must have been painful to witness when he was a resident of Zagreb. His prose sneaks up and grabs you by the throat. The people described in The Distortions cannot forget what they lived through. And, now, neither can we.

The Distortions, by Christopher Linforth. Asheville, North Carolina: Orison Books, March 2022. 194 pages. $15.00, paper.

Alexandra Grabbe worked as a green innkeeper on Cape Cod, a lyricist, and a talk show host in Paris, France. She learned about the publishing industry as Barbara Chase-Riboud’s editorial assistant. In 2014, she edited her dad’s memoir, Émigré. Alexandra now lives in Arlington, MA, where she has created a fabulous flower garden. Her recent work was published in The Washington Post, Better After 50, New World Writing, and Unity Magazine. She is revising a novel.

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