When cracking open a new collection of short fiction, it’s not encouraging to discover the following sentence fewer than 10 pages in: “Playing cards trumped all else in our family.” This kind of affected punning is frequently a sign of desperation on the part of a writer; for a reader, encountering this sentence so early on results in a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Fortunately, this instance of self-conscious prose is not entirely indicative of the stories in B.C. writer Shelley A. Leedahl’s 10th book.
The dozen stories in Listen, Honey centre on relationships – familial and romantic – most of which are decidedly dysfunctional. In “The Song of the Dog,” a couple tries to replace their beloved deceased canine (improbably named Elton John), resulting in friction when the new pet turns out to be a “holy terror.” The high-school senior in “Rabun County” simultaneously negotiates a romantic relationship with one of her teachers and the implications of her mentally challenged sister’s unwanted pregnancy. And in the title story, a wayward son listens to a succession of voicemail messages left by his lonely and inconsolable mother.
Many of the stories turn on a dramatic moment that changes the protagonist’s outlook, often providing hope or a kind of cautious optimism. The main character in “Heads Down, Keep Low,” flying home to reunite with her estranged brother following their mother’s cancer diagnosis, contemplates new beginnings after an airborne emergency forces the plane to make a rough landing. In “Paraplegic Sex,” a married woman ends an affair with a much younger man after being caught by her ne’er-do-well son. And a car trip to a cabin in rural Manitoba with her lover and his two obnoxious daughters brings a new perspective to the protagonist of “The Lay of the Land.”
That story is narrated in the second person, an approach that should probably be avoided in any book not called Bright Lights, Big City, and the Southern milieu in “Rabun County” feels somewhat hackneyed. But Leedahl manages to maintain a relatively insouciant tone, and most of the stories in the collection are at least serviceable, and sometimes better than that. “Johnny Dead Bed,” about a couple who move into a two-storey brick house where the previous owner died, is a standout, as is “Paraplegic Sex.” (Unfortunately, the author is often not well served by the volume’s presentation: the staggering number of copy errors provides a challenge for readers.)
Listen, Honey is not a collection that is liable to linger in the mind, but it is an enjoyable enough experience while it lasts.