I recently was asked to consider a book review I enjoyed and ask myself why I enjoyed it—so I went straight to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. It made the Scotiabank Giller Prize Long List for this year, and is one of the two most engaging novels I’ve read in the last little while. It won out over Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye only because Heti is Canadian and the novel carries a distinctly 6ix-ian* flavour, and I am personally dedicated to touting all things literary from home.
Ultimately, I chose Katherine Sharpe’s review from The Hopkins Review, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. I chose it not only for its scholarly home and anticipated academic audience (though that was no small consideration), but primarily because Sharpe puts forward her own thesis, not just about Motherhood, but also autofiction as a genre. Other reviews I found while prowling—from places like The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, and The Cut—did not advance critical theses but rather gave personal reflections on the authors’ individual experiences with the novel. From the writer with a sleepless five-month-old: “the book is absurd.” From another woman whose position echoed the Do It All expectation from the nineties: “Heti is indulgent and childish,” which leaves me confused between whether she meant Heti the author, structuring the book in a way she disparaged, or the novel’s unnamed speaker, grappling with a life-changing question and her own brain’s faults (the latter part of the book addresses the speaker’s troubling mental illness). The writer from The New Yorker obstinately refused to separate author and speaker, criticizing the publishing house for marketing the book as a novel and not as memoire.
In a careful, latent way, Sharpe constructs a parallel between how deeply readers trust or lean-in to autofiction against how the novel’s speaker confronts her own reality-veil after being prescribed antidepressants. The speaker perceives brightness and joy in places foreign to her previous tone of thought. Sharpe writes:
She faces the uncomfortable question forced on so many people who have a ruminative melancholy, one that felt philosophically significant, ripped open by drugs—was it all for nothing?
Sharpe also pulls out a biting quote from the speaker’s internal thoughts: is there a difference between when someone seeks the truth, and they eventually ascend, versus someone who seeks the truth but is brought “down down down” by their own mind, “and then they take the drugs, and then they go up? I don’t know what kind of story that is.”
As readers confronted with Heti’s strange, sparkling novel, we have to confess: we don’t know what kind of story that is. As women undecided in whether or not to be mothers, we don’t know what kind of story we’ll wind up writing, especially in a society where it is increasingly taboo to be a woman voluntarily childless—what kind of story is that? As Sharpe opens her review with a clear picture of Motherhood
[it] resembles a series of journal entries. There are few characters and fewer scenes. Dialogue comes primarily from a series of “conversations” between the narrator and an oracular device inspired by the I Ching, achieved by flipping three coins, which answers yes or no to the narrator’s questions. The book also incorporates tarot cards, a homeless psychic, and the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Notwithstanding these pseudo-interlocutors, the effect of reading Motherhood is largely one of listening in on a thoughtful, troubled person speaking to herself.
And what kind of story is that?
*The 6ix is a moniker for Toronto. As the population grew and density escalated, in the late 1990s the provincial government changed the Toronto city limits so it encompassed its five surrounding cities. Now “Toronto” is made of six boroughs according to the same lines when they were six independent municipalities.