Shelia Heti

A Review of Sheila Heti’s “Motherhood”

Hand Wringing

The lonely fill up their lives with books. I don’t live in nature. I don’t live in culture. I don’t live in my relationships. I live in books. What good can all the books of the world be, penned by the loneliest men who ever lived? — Sheila Heti, Motherhood.

“Motherhood” Book Cover

It was some time ago that Sheila Heti was something of an It Girl of Canadian Literature. I remember because she was so young — roughly the same age that I am — I was quite jealous that someone had an easy road to publication when I struggled. I read her 2005 short novel Ticknor, and I don’t recall much about it other than the fact that it was fairly inaccessible. Or so my memory goes, because I really can’t for the life of me remember anything else about it. Well, Ms. Heti has gotten much more accessible with her latest novel, Motherhood, but she’s still bringing a touch of the avant-garde to her work.

You see, while Motherhood is a work of fiction, it is also a rambly narrative that reads like an essay. It’s written in the first person singular, so you have to wonder how much of it is about Heti and how much of it isn’t. Are Heti’s complicated feelings about bringing new life into the world hers, or is it entirely made up? Another thing is that there are sections of the novel where the narrator resorts to flipping coins in a twisty take on the I Ching method of divination. Thus, one must wonder how much of the narrative is random and how much of it has been deliberately mapped out.

While Motherhood is immensely readable — I finished most of its nearly 300 pages in one sitting — I’m torn on the narrative method. It’s clever, sure. It shows that Heti is an inventive writer. However, it also left me cold because the words didn’t feel as though they were coming directly from Heti, even though the narrator is also a published writer so the veil between the two must be pretty thin indeed. I suppose the reason behind the smokescreen is to afford the author a bit of privacy and not hurt those she’s nearest and dearest with. Still, I was left wanting — not necessarily because I want to snoop where I really have no business snooping, but because there were questions of the authenticity of thought in the narrative for me. How much of this book is real and how much of it is make-believe? Who knows?

The crux of why this is important is because motherhood is such a profoundly personal choice. Whether or not a woman wants to have a child is pretty much mapped out for her at a young age, because, once you get past your 40th birthday, the biological clock really starts ticking. So a woman has to make up her mind rather quickly about her choice, and then find a partner that’s just as willing to want to bring a new life into the world. Whether or not that’s a soulmate is up to the woman, it seems. And this is not to speak of the fact that society puts pressure on women in a romantic coupling — will they have children or not? And, if not, why didn’t the woman want to have babies?

Yet, there is a bounty of good to be found in Motherhood. The book almost literally wrestles with the question of being a mother and the question of being an artist — and whether or not a woman could be both and do the job on both counts equally well. The book also explores the nature of relationships between men and women, and also between women and their own mothers, and the ties to something resembling a family unit (in the event that the couple is not married, as is the case here, or the woman’s parents have gotten divorced, which also is the case here). There’s a lot of juicy psychological questions that the novel tackles, so you can’t say that this is a lightweight piece of puff that most contemporary women’s fiction that is not literary seems to get lumped into.

The book is a revelation in its prose style, even though the randomness of the questions the narrator asks of her coins seem as though they must have been premeditated and are not quite as flighty as they appear. This is a book that an average person would probably want to read, though, which is more than I can say about my shady memories of Ticknor. (Recalling, again, that the book seemed impenetrable.) To me, Heti has come a long way from 2005 in writing works that resonate with the average person. Whether or not these words will resonate with women remains to be seen. Seeing as I, of course, am not in possession of a uterus or, at least, a close female friend I could loan the book to for their impressions, I don’t know if women really go through the wringer as this narrator does over the choice to have children. In any event, this book seems to be the feminine inverse of Michael Chabon’s recently published Pops, a collection of (real) essays on the nature of fatherhood and nurturing from the male point of view.

Overall, I found Motherhood to be an intriguing book with an interesting structure that remains over the counter as it blurs the distinctions between the personal essay and fiction. That’s not an easy feat to pull off, so kudos to Heti for doing that. Though Heti’s obsession with having children does sometimes border on the neurotic (and I hope I’m not sounding sexist here, but there’s a lot of hand wringing in the book on the issue of having kids versus not having kids), the narrator is relatable — even if she might have a profession that only a privileged few will ever be able to have: making money from her art. Anyone looking for a book about writing literature, wrestling with doubts, and the choice that every woman will have to make in their lives will find good grazing here. Motherhood is a sumptuous feast about that choice, and the consequences of waiting too long to make it. Easy reading on a complicated subject, this is.

Sheila Heti’s Motherhood was published by Henry Holt and Company on May 1, 2018.

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Zachary Houle

Zachary Houle

Book critic by night, technical writer by day. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.