Orchestra of the Lost Steps

by Shelley A. Leedahl
220 pages,
ISBN: 1894345673

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All Body Parts Accounted For
by Antony Di Nardo

After reading the thirteen stories in this collection I'd have to agree that Shelley A. Leedahl has "a chameleon talent for creating colourful characters in ever-changing environs." I've pulled this statement out of "Wintering", one of the stories in this collection, in which an unsuccessful writer faces his writer's block while his marriage falls apart. The comment appears in a fictional review of that writer's well-received first book and could easily have been said about this one. Orchestra of the Lost Steps is about ordinary people who face their lives' realities-their losses, failed relationships, and the changes that confuse them. In short, they learn to deal with the quiet torment of their everyday lives.
In the landscapes of these lives, Leedahl turns these ordinary people into extraordinarily colourful characters. She can snap a portrait of abject despair, of sexual frustration, or of lingering regret, and the reader watches the Polaroid of that life reveal itself in the bright light of her prose.
Her roots as a poet are evident in this collection. She portrays imagery with ease and combines poetry's economy of language with its connotative powers; she manages to compress scenery or atmosphere, a feeling or a physical trait into a few choice words. In the title story she refers to the heat on a Venezuelan beach as "a wet towel she wore like a bodybag." "El Pitallel" takes the reader to another tourist destination, this time Mexico, where "everything seemed to be in a state of semi-repair: buildings, roads, cars, people," and a character in this story can't sleep at night for "the catfight sounds of squealing tires." Back in Saskatchewan, the setting for most of the other stories, "rusty slivers of rain" fall and you can "smell the lilacs' purple impatience." In one of her stronger stories, "Baby Please Don't Go", the last few sentences wrap up a life of restlessness and resignation, but not without a flicker of hope: "For some girls it may have been enough, but as the bus backed out of the station and the highway rolled out before me like undeveloped film, I knew I'd never be sorry for what I'd left him with: three dirty ashtrays, two damp towels and four rooms emptied of what he presumed was love."
Leedahl's characters are invitations into urban and suburban lives. Through the peephole glimpse that she gives us, these people appear real and familiar. They search for answers, they yearn for something different, they confront themselves. By inserting the smallest, intimate detail of these lives passing through irretrievable time, by providing the reader with the minutiae of their habits, choices and observations, they assume a corporeality that provokes reflection on the desperate state of the human condition. She writes about Hitchcock's women, stereotyped as "frigid females with a vulnerable core." During a parlour game in that same story, a group of baby boomers divide their world into two opposed camps: with or without, likes and dislikes, those who prefer showers to those who take baths, those "who liked Pulp Fiction and those idiots who didn't." This is nothing but a party game. However, the inventory of dichotomies that follows renders the world so absurdly simplified that it's suggestive of the way people try to understand and, consequently, end up misunderstanding their lives. Only the youngest woman at the party, extra-generational to the others, sees clearly through the fog of pretense and superficiality. Knowing all there is to know about the one she loves is what matters most to her. That, and passion: "She needed everything, everything. To be so filled with all his details the scars between them blurred."
In another story, "Triste Avenida", Sam lives his life in "the world behind his eyes" and slowly withdraws into an alienating fantasy. At the funeral of a young girl who is accidentally killed on her paper route, he observes that "suits in the room clothe men they were not intended for, in colours no longer fashionable. [He] sees feet pinched into shoes that have only ever known runners, cowboy boots, the steel toes of construction." These are the people of his world, and he can neither relate to them nor find a place for them in his inner space. They are as alien to him as he is alien to the woman who has loved him and leaves him. We sense his overwhelming sadness in much of what is left unsaid.
The voices in Leedahl's stories are immediate and compelling. They ask to be heard. Her first person narratives are told by characters who quickly assume a distinct personality and style. In "Harm's Way", the cowboy twang of the narrative and its accompanying diction creates a kind of campfire setting for the inexorable telling of the tale and we can't wait to hear what happens next. The voice of the writer in "Wintering" has a matter-of-fact tone to it, almost detached, as if the events of his life can only be recounted without emotion, in a cold and calculated "writerly" fashion. In that same story, the narrator states that "editors have been stressing the lack of physical description in my work ...My characters are all neuroses. There are no fingers. No ear lobes." The same cannot be said of this collection. Leedahl's characters are both blessed and possessed with their own brand of neuroses, but I assure you all body parts are accounted for in the reader's imagination.

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