The Pink House and Other Stories (Longbridge Books, 2018) is Montreal writer Licia Canton’s second collection of short stories after Almond, Wine and Fertility (2008). In her latest volume, Canton narrates the lives of ordinary people facing challenging times, drawing from her own personal experiences, as a writer, a daughter, a mother and as an Italian immigrant living in Montreal. With her straightforward narrative style, she connects us with her characters’ emotions in a way that allows us to identify with them and to feel their pain, their suffering, their awkwardness, their indifference, but also their perseverance and strength.
The Pink House is composed of fifteen seemingly unrelated short stories that surprisingly turn out to be all interconnected: some of the stories have recurring characters and, even those that have different protagonists and different storylines, could all be snapshots of an Italian immigrant’s life from young adulthood to old age.
The protagonist of “Watching Them Laugh” is a busy mother of four who, one afternoon, finds herself sitting in a shopping centre food court, watching her mother and her daughter laughing and talking to each other while in a toy store across from her. In a rare moment of forced idleness, she cannot stop herself from worrying about her responsibilities and her daily chores, while at the same time reflecting on her own mother’s self-effacing nature and her lifelong struggles and hardships as a hard-working mother and immigrant.
“In Front of the Bell Centre” gives us a brief two-page snapshot of the thought process of a woman in her fifties who has just been run over by a car in front of Montreal’s Bell Centre and is waiting for medical attention with her teenage daughter by her side. Through the character’s stream of consciousness, Canton is able to convey a truthful reaction to a very traumatic moment.
“Because of Leonard Cohen” and “Soft Pastels” are metaliterary short stories about a female writer who, after a traumatic experience, is struggling with writer’s block. The protagonist, an artist/writer is here reflecting on the act of writing itself and on the creative process in an almost pirandellian way.
The protagonists of “The Pink House” are a young married couple, Aldo and Nancy, expecting their first child. This is the only story that follows the protagonists from young adulthood to old age and it is no coincidence that the volume takes its name from this short story. Contrary to all the other short stories in this collection, Aldo and Nancy live a happy and uneventful life in their pink house, but as Aldo himself tells his wife “pink is not the colour of a real house” (36), suggesting maybe that their idyllic world may be just a dream, or an ideal that some of us may strive for but rarely achieve.
“The Woman in the Red Coat” brings us back to the car accident in front of the Bell Centre, where, in her moment of suffering, the protagonist focuses her attention on the passenger of the vehicle who just hit her. Canton’s narrative style is not linear, her stories are not in chronological order, her narration is constantly interrupted and then continued at a later time. The writer’s narrative technique keeps us readers focussed and engaged. We become more active readers, trying to find connections between characters and storylines, forcing us to find similarities with our own fragmented nature.
The accident in front of the Bell Centre is also the starting point of the short story “The Driver,” where the point of view shifts from that of the victim to that of the driver of the vehicle. Canton brings us into the mind of a man whose life is also turned around by that one tragic moment.
The last story to develop from the accident in front of the Bell Centre is “Behind the Curtain.” The protagonist is still the victim and is now in a crowded hospital room, waiting to undergo surgery to her injured legs. Canton’s upfront and genuine style of writing makes us feel the pain and the discomfort of the victim who is hidden behind a hospital curtain in a room filled with other patients.
In “The Encounter” a woman faces her former future-father-in-law only to discover that her ex-fiancé never loved her, while in “In the Stacks” Rita, a young expecting mother makes a chance encounter with a stranger, Massimiliano, in a university library. The story of these two characters is further developed in “Massimiliano and Rita.” These seemingly opposite characters, one an Italian-Canadian mother of two, soon to be three, and the other a single French-Canadian man, start to develop a connection that most might think impossible.
“Goethe’s Lap” is the story of an Italian Canadian woman who physically and mentally revisits her first study-abroad experience, after thirty years, during a trip to Vienna with her parents, her children, her sister and her niece and nephew. The story is a play between two pictures, the one taken 30 years back, of the carefree protagonist sitting on the lap of a statue of Goethe, and the one taken with the entire family in front of the statue during their trip. Canton takes this opportunity to point out the generational differences between these three generations of her family. Generational differences are also what drives the action of “Dinner at Enrico’s,” where the protagonist, once again a writer, finds herself going head to head with a father figure that seems to know best and ignores her wishes.
The last short story of the collection is “The Motorcycle,” where an elderly Italian immigrant is in the process of renewing his motorcycle licence in an attempt to keep his independence and his dignity.
In The Pink House Licia Canton has mastered the art of storytelling: through her multiple perspectives she presents us with a comprehensive and intergenerational look at the Italian immigrant experience in Canada. Canton does not shy from writing about all aspects of this experience, from old-fashioned gender roles to family dynamics to issues of adaptation and the bond with the motherland, but at the same time her stories expand well beyond issues of adaptation: her protagonists are mostly working women and mothers trying to negotiate their responsibilities in the work field and at home. These are not just stories of immigrants and their children, but are stories of women, men, children, grandparents coping with everything life has thrown at them.
This review was first published in Italian Canadiana Journal, Issue 32, Italian Studies Department, University of Toronto (2018).
Christine Sansalone is Associate Professor of Italian in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Laurentian University.