Leanne Radojkovich’s latest collection of fiction, Hailman, is filled with startling images that linger in the mind and encourage you to excavate its mysterious, dream-like prose, writes our contributor Rym Kechacha.
Hailman, a slim book of ten stories by Leanne Radojkovich and published by The Emma Press, is a collection peopled with mean men and weary women that often unspool from a moment of return to a place of old grief. There is something wispy about the stories that belies their strength, like mist that lingers innocently in the air but drenches you right through. They are filled with silences and lacunae, narrators alienated from their families, their surroundings and even their memories.
Radojkovich is skilled at creating atmospheres of murky tension. Her characters are drawn to abandoned slivers of creek or woods, teeming with grubby, unloved beings. These are the places children gather to be free from their homes, their adults, the cloying neediness of their own younger selves; ‘A creek lay at the bottom. It was more of a raggedy line of puddles, and when rain came the puddles joined up and eels slipped through like shadows’ (‘On Spinning’). ‘It was a sticky evening, and screaming cicadas clasped the stalks of threadbare toetoe’ (‘Double Dose’).
Her writing is peppered with startling images that swirl in the mind and seem to lift out of their narrative to become almost like quoted lines of poetry. Lines like, ‘A guitar note spangled out and the audience in the centre gelled into a massive anemone, their raised arms wavering hairs.’ (‘Double Dose’) or ‘If looks could kill… Of course they couldn’t, but they could brush against the back of your neck; they could caress your cheek’ (‘Hailman’), made me stop, look out the window, drift on the conjured associations for a few moments before returning to pick up the threads of the writing.
But it is the tiny tactile details that Radojkovich peppers her characters’ lives with that work hardest in her writing and end up lingering in the mind. There is something about her narrators which is absent in some way, as though we are invited only into the hallway of someone’s consciousness but not encouraged to take off our coats. We see them in silhouette against the multiple petty matters of their lives. Objects like knitted tea cosies and icing sugar and flower seed packets; objects that provide clues Radojkovich uses to invite you to excavate the prose to build your interpretations.
This sleuthy way of reading challenged me. Though I often feel embarrassed by the tendency, I’m naturally someone who wants to be knocked over the head with the meaning of what I’m reading leaving no ambiguity or ambivalence, to turn the page and feel triumphant in my understanding of the author’s intentions. But these stories are like someone whispering a song you really want to listen to from across the room, you have to shut up and listen. You have to lean right into the silences and reach for the characters to soothe them, to share a soft sigh. You have to stay alert for clues in stories where a single sentence contains the key. Don’t blink, don’t miss it, Radojkovich has weighed every word and found it worthy.
The collection has a consistently elegiac tone with occasional swells of sadness, humour and tenderness, which gives the collection the cohesive feeling of each tale being part of a greater whole. Some stories linger in my mind like spider’s silk sticky and tangled on my fingers hours after brushing through a web; stories like ‘On Spinning’, the tale of a woman returning to her unhappy childhood home where her beloved brother still lives, and the touching ‘Cats and Dogs’, about a middle aged woman who cleans for a living and finds herself swept up in a more glamorous, emptier world, have this effect.
Hailman is the sort of collection that makes me think about what a short story really is. It makes me think about the way we categorise pieces of prose by how many words they contain rather than by, for instance, the kind of feeling they evoke, or their relationship with realism, or the structure of their narrative. We do have descriptors like ‘tale’ or ‘vignette’ that hint at something in the form of a story that might mark it out but I can’t think of many more, certainly not enough to be able to form a full and flexible lexicon to adequately categorise this endlessly shape-shifting form. Radojkovich’s subtlety and care and her haunting images make me wonder if that adjective ‘short’ only pretends to be referring to the number of words; if really it is describing something compressed in the writing, something that hints at a greater world lying just out of view of the page. This is Hailman’s greatest strength for me. Everything it doesn’t say, everything deliberately left nestled in the blank space, everything it says about what stories can do with silence and stillness and all that is unspeakable in our lives.