Book Review: The Pink House and Other Stories

17 Jan 2019

Book Review: The Pink House and Other Stories by Licia Canton

Licia Canton’s 2018 book The Pink House and Other Stories is a collection of 15 short stories set in a Montreal as recognizable in its street names and landmarks as it is in its multi-ethnicity. Each explores the rawness of the human experience in every-day situations in a transparency bolstered by the economy of Canton’s no-frills prose. Agitation, anger, anxiety. Alienation, confusion, depression. Fear, frustration, solitude. Helplessness, guilt, pain. These are the emotions laid bare in the collection’s best entries.

At the heart of each story is a female character — arguably the same female character at different points in her life, or in a parallel dimension the result of a different set of decisions — who makes no secret of her confusion and struggle to gain (or regain) control over her life. It is a life, in her eyes, not entirely her own and too heavily influenced by others’ expectations; a life in which her true nature, her desires, her professional aspirations, her very physical presence, are too often and too easily dismissed or taken for granted. The Pink House’s Woman is conflicted and feels slighted. The book’s strength lies in Canton’s ability to depict her honestly and not always favourably. Often, she appears as the darker face of the two-sided coin: more presumptuous than she is perceptive, more stubborn than strong-willed, more mistrusting than independent, more guarded than private, more embittered than experienced, more self-absorbed than introspective. Canton’s Woman is strong, but not infallible and not always likeable. She draws strength from the love she receives from her husband and/or children — the family she chooses for herself — but ostensibly suffers from a misandry that at times leaves her short-sighted, unable to take responsibility for her behaviour, prone to self-victimizing, and unaccepting of others’ weaknesses. Unveiling the layers of such a complex and unapologetic archetype is no small feat.

Canton moves consistently from first-person to third-person narration throughout the collection, even in couplets of stories working together: “Because of Leonard Cohen” is told in the third person, but “Soft Pastels,” its partner (in which the same characters appear) is told in the first.  She is most successful, however, when she allows her third-person narrator to deviate from the path of the Woman and flesh out the worlds of her supporting characters. The couplet formed by “The Woman in the Red Coat” and “The Driver” is the clearest example of this idea, in my opinion. In the former, Canton’s Woman, the victim of a car accident (and first-person narrator) imagines what her accident might look like from the point of view of a seemingly uninterested bystander whose husband was at the wheel at the time of the incident. Her imagination is fuelled by a (well-justified) rage that precludes objectivity. In “The Driver,” however, this bystander and her husband are both given voices and the opportunity to recount their experience of the event and its aftermath as it affected them directly and as they imagine it to be affecting the victim. This is an important show of empathy on the part of the narrator, and, I think, the strongest pair of stories in the collection.

Also noteworthy is the couplet formed by “In the Stacks” and “Massimiliano and Rita,” which both raise questions about stereotyping (often subconscious), cultural difference even between people with common roots, and the utility and ultimate purpose of “goodness,” dutifulness, and propriety. Rita is a headstrong North American Italian who abhors in Massimiliano, a French Canadian of Italian descent, the kind of ethnic stereotyping and sexism she herself engages in. Her initial resistance to his somewhat brash inquisitiveness and intuition about her gives way, however, to a greater willingness to engage with someone she at first considers to be untrustworthy at best. It is Rita’s growth as a character and Canton’s awareness of her gross inconsistencies that help make clear the message at the stories’ core: not everything is as it seems.

Ironically, the book’s weakest story, in my view, is the one that lends the collection its name. “The Pink House” is markedly out of step in tone with the others, and the hopeful fantasy version of life it offers rings as incomplete and insincere when surrounded by so much of its opposite. It is redeemed, in the collection, by its association with “The Driver” and, by way of that, with the message so fundamental to Rita and Massimiliano: that appearances deceive, and presumption is seldom positive. The characters involved in the Woman’s accident live in the pink house and there appear as a hard-working young couple trying to provide their growing family with a comfortable future. In “The Woman in the Red Coat,” which takes place decades later, they are imagined, by the first-person narrator, to be members of an indifferent upper crust of society too concerned with showcasing their wealth and status to offer support to the person they’ve injured — or even to inquire about her well-being. It is in connecting these three dots that “The Pink House” reveals its (albeit ill-fitting) place and purpose in the book’s overall narrative structure.

The Pink House and Other Stories is Licia Canton’s second book, and follows Almond Wine and Fertility (2008).