As I was saying, my Shadow Giller reviews will appear in a slightly different format: first, In Short, a 300-word and spoiler-free summary, intended to have a broad appeal, and, next, In Detail, which will expound upon one aspect of the book which I found remarkable (but which might be of interest only to those who have already read the book or those with an interest in the mechanics of writing).
Sheila Heti describes feeling as though she was tricked by writing this book: “It made me write it and write it for years – the answer like something I could almost reach –tantalizingly there – the promise of an answer just around the corner – maybe in the next day’s writing.”
If readers expected to find, in Motherhood, a character contemplating the decision to become a parent, they might consider themselves tricked too: there is as much of Sheila Heti in this novel as there was in How Should A Person Be? and Motherhood? would have been more accurate.
But readers who plan to read Heti probably are not expecting a shaped and polished narrative (or, if they are, that expectation will be dashed in a couple of pages). No beginning-middle-end here: this is all middle. As Heti describes it, she is in the afternoon of her life, and this is the time for writing: the “time for children is breakfast”.
Her reflection on whether to have a child with her partner is less about a decision and more about the ideas and possibilities which swirl around the question itself: ideas about inheritance and creativity, acceptance and yearning, belonging and loneliness, and seemingly endless questions about all this and more.*
In something-like-a-conclusion, Motherhood is about all of these things and none of them, about nothing and everything simultaneously: “One person’s life is not a political or general statement about how all lives should be. Other lives should be able to exist alongside our own without any threat or judgment at all.” It could have been a book about how people should be.
The book begins with a series of questions – Magic-Eight-Ball styled questions – in an attempt to approach the subject methodically and to reduce things to simplest terms. “I don’t think I have a heart – a heart I can consult. Instead, I have these coins.” Tossing the coins, following a variation on the I Ching, readers follow along. These interludes propel readers forward, almost tripping across the question-answer rhythm, grateful for something-like-simplicity alongside more emotional segments.
Increasingly, however, the method reveals itself to be unsuitable for the task:
Is any of the above true?
Is there any use in any of this, if none of it is true?
Even if you said yes, it wouldn’t matter.
More important than any of the answers (i.e. than either of the answers) is the process of asking the questions. But implicit in the process is the importance placed on the response. We want answers. And, perhaps more than most, women in this society who choose to not have children must be prepared to offer answers. Even when – perhaps especially when – those answers are difficult to summarize.
Being a woman, you can’t just say you don’t want a child. You have to have some big plan or idea of what you’re going to do instead. And it better be something great. And you had better be able to tell it convincingly – before it even happens – what the arc of your life will be.
In one sense, this book does consider a woman’s ideas about parenting: “Sometimes I’m convinced that a child will add depth to all things – just bring a background of depth and meaning to whatever it is I do.”
In another sense, Motherhood presents a creative person’s awareness of the need to prioritize: “I believe I want to have adventures, or to breathe in the day, but that would leave less time for writing.”
In yet another sense, Heti is approaching the question even more specifically as a writer: “And you are never lonely while writing, I thought, it’s impossible to be – categorically impossible – because writing is a relationship. You’re in a relationship with some force that is more mysterious than yourself. As for me, I suppose it has been the central relationship of my life.”
But even how she approaches the questions is less important than the fact that she keeps asking them. This is, seemingly, the way to be. The way to write. The way to live.
In other words
Links to reviews from the other Giller Prize 2018 shadow jury members: Alison, Kim and Naomi (links live when available).
There is something threatening about a book about a woman who is not occupied with children. At least, that’s kind of what Sheila Heti says: “There is something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children. There is something at-loose-ends-feeling about such a woman. What is she going to do instead? What sort of trouble will she make?”
And Giller Prizes generally go to novels (only occasionally short story collections) with traditional narrative arcs. No loose ends allowed.
Okay, so Andre Alexis brought a pack of critters to the ceremony, with Fifteen Dogs in 2015 and there are some footnotes in 1997’s Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler.
But relatively speaking? This jury has already selected a diverse shortlist: choosing Motherhood as their winner would probably be far too adventurous.
This is one of the twelve books chosen for the longlist for the 2018 Giller Prize, which was announced on September 17, 2018 and selected by the 2018 Giller Prize jury which includes Kamal Al-Solaylee, Maxine Bailey, John Freeman, Philip Hensher and Heather O’Neill.
On October 1st, it and four other books were advanced to the shortlist and one of those will be chosen to win the prize on November 19th. This year I am reading with the shadow jury, with Alison and Kim and Naomi, who have committed to reading this shortlist in its entirety.