‘A Three-Tiered Pastel Dream’ by Lesley Trites

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Lynne C. Martin

Pepto-Bismol pink, the colour of the cover of Lesley Trites’ first short-story collection, is also the title of the opening story. Told from the point of view of a socially challenged office clerk, Paula is coming off a one-night stand with Greg and discovers she’s pregnant. During the course of her baby’s birth and first years of life, Paula discovers the deep joy of relating to another human being. However, Paula’s daughter, named Gregory, is generally unresponsive to Paula’s presence, which leads her to reach out for help in ways she never would have imagined. Paula, Greg, and their daughter are unique, likable human beings, and the title serves as a subtle code for the story itself: the existence of this baby daughter, though hard to swallow, nevertheless leads to unexpected comfort and healing.

Like finding Easter egg bonuses in video games, searching for mentions of the colour pink was a fun side quest while reading the stories. It is mentioned in seven of them, sometimes more than once. In those pieces that don’t mention pink, the colours red and white appear as symbolic accents, especially in “Somewhere,” about a high school girl named Katie who longs to escape the confines of her small town and the abusive boys in her life. Details such as Katie’s mother’s stolen red Cavalier and the drug dealer’s “paint-peeled door that presumably used to be white” are together reminiscent of fairy tales such as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. Such echoes provide ironic commentary on Katie’s plight—there will be no handsome prince to rescue her from her vegetative state.

“Rituals” offers a sardonic comment on the selfishness of First World concerns. The narrator, Janice, goes on for over forty pages making excuses about why she drinks too much and won’t come out of her hotel rooms while on an extended trip around the world with her sanctimonious boyfriend, Matt. Janice suffers from anxiety because of a skin condition, but her incessant whining tries the reader’s patience. Matt and Janice treat each other badly, and neither one matures in any way.

As a whole, the collection is relentlessly dark. Out of the eleven stories presented here, six describe grief after major loss (two are about suicide), three focus on a main character’s depression, and one explores a young woman’s loneliness and latent homosexuality while she is trapped in a marriage and pregnancy, expressed through her disturbingly adolescent diary. Only one story—“Out Taming Horses”—about the protagonist’s recovery from divorce contains moments of wry humour. All of the stories are about mismatched or strained relationships between romantic partners, parents and children, brothers and sisters; there is seldom the possibility of hope.

The narrator of the award-winning story “Rabbits with Red Eyes” remembers how her father came to terms with the suicide of his brother, Tony, and reflects on the impact of her father’s actions on her twelve-year-old self. “Fulminology” lets the reader into the soul of a young wife visiting her parents on the anniversary of her brother’s death, while also grieving about not being unable to get pregnant. In “The Eyes of the Moose,” a granddaughter comes home to New Brunswick for her grandmother’s funeral and watches her grandfather try to cope with his loss. The mother in “How to Be a Widow” is helped to move forward by her eight-year-old daughter even while struggling to be the strong one for both of them.

These stories are captivating. Read them, but with breaks to recover one’s own joy. Trites possesses a deep understanding of grief’s peculiar landscape as felt by individuals across generations, and demonstrates her prodigious writing talent by avoiding histrionics or stereotypes when describing these hardships. In particular, the collection’s eponymous story, told through a letter from a mentally ill mother and former doctor to her adult daughter Mara, an accomplished ballerina. Written on a public library computer, the letter explains how the now homeless mother came to abandon Mara on her first birthday, with a “three-tiered pastel dream” of a cake on the seat next to her in the car. Her explanation is heartbreaking and entirely convincing, and Trites shows the promise of even better work as she grows into her art.

Esplanade Books | $19.95 | 180 pages | paper | ISBN #978-1550654646

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Lynne Carol Martin

When she’s not writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry and plays, Lynne Carol Martin tutors at Red River College and teaches English for Business and IT Professionals at the University of Winnipeg. She also runs a business called Clear Voice Enterprises, helping students and professionals hone their communication skills. Her monologue Good Enough was performed at Sarasvàti’s International Women’s Week Cabaret of Monologues in March 2016.