There’s a claustrophobic and secretive quality to Montreal writer Lesley Trites’s debut, a book of short stories that illuminates the lives of girls and women.
In the first story, “Pepto-Bismol Pink,” a woman sleeps with a married man and chooses to raise the daughter that results from the encounter alone, contacting him only when money is needed after she discovers the child has autism. In the last, a married woman compares herself to another with whom she shared a kiss in high school and chooses to get pregnant after seeing her friend’s sonogram on Facebook. The protagonists’ respective desire for children is puzzling because these narratives lack interiority, but they confront their subject with undeniable candour. Consider the question that closes the book: “Would you use your baby as a shield, if a murderer broke into your house?”
Many of the stories feature women balancing careers and relationships, their lives urged forward by compulsion, illness, or death. The strongest stories don’t pivot on the artifice of their constraints, but embody them thematically. In “Rituals,” the longest story in the collection (at 42 pages, it is more than twice as long as most others), a couple decides to save their relationship by taking a trip around the world. The protagonist accompanies her husband to India on a work trip where she spends hours in bathrooms, obsessing over acne and makeup. They visit rural Spain and France, then end up in Las Vegas for the bachelorette of her husband’s friend. In the simulacrum of the desert city, the norms of romantic love are exposed as a falsity too, an epiphany gradually realized when the protagonist refuses to follow her husband as he returns to their hotel.
Because all the protagonists in the book are shaped by external circumstances – a husband, a pregnancy, a creeping illness – the stories can feel suffocating. Though the brevity of the majority is effective, Trites’s potential as a storyteller is most apparent in her ability to renew tropes of love and compulsion without sacrificing the linearity of her narratives, and the realism it can afford.