Shadow Giller: Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (2018)

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).

In short

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.

 *In detail

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.



  1. Naomi October 24, 2018 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    I’m glad I didn’t think too much about the pros and cons of having children – I might never have had them! 😉

    My sister is doing exactly that right now – making a decision about having children without actually deciding. Just letting the time go, and one day it’ll be too late. But my thought is that if you’re really unsure, you maybe shouldn’t have them. On the other hand, there are many people who have children without planning to have them and are perfectly content with the fact that they did. Really, it’s one of life’s biggest decisions and could probably fill many books.
    Judging by all my babbling, this might make a good book club book.

    • Buried In Print October 25, 2018 at 10:16 am - Reply

      This one might actually make for a good discussion for your Literary Wives bookgroup too because there is also a lot in there about how to be a good partner, during times of questioning like this and, also, in general. I do think that, if there’s a lot of uncertainty that it’s probably best to allow that to have the weight it deserves, but it’s hard to do that in a culture which doesn’t truly value the other kinds of choices that women make (which isn’t to say that all mothers feel/are properly valued in our society either). I remember being asked in family studies class how many children I wanted and being sure that I wanted them, because it simply wasn’t acceptable to even think about not having them!

      • Naomi October 27, 2018 at 11:02 am - Reply

        I just started reading this last night, and wow, there are a lot of questions! Maybe it should have been called Life?

        • Buried In Print October 28, 2018 at 11:08 am - Reply

          Yesterday I read a review of this by Myra Bloom, in the latest CNQ (Canadian Notes & Queries) and she, too, noticed that it feels like an extension of How Should a Person Be? so now I’m wondering if the Motherhood title was simply a marketing decision. (So says the cynical part of me.)

  2. annelogan17 October 19, 2018 at 3:06 pm - Reply

    Yes, we have a mix of people with family backgrounds, so the discussion should be good!

    • Buried In Print October 23, 2018 at 4:07 pm - Reply

      Hope it goes well! (You’re probably already reading by now!)

  3. Rebecca Foster October 19, 2018 at 9:09 am - Reply

    I like your observation that the title should end with a question mark. I’d not read any Heti before and don’t think I’ll read her other work, but this one so perfectly captured my swirl of thoughts that I loved it and consider it among my top reads of the year. I agree with you that it’s very unlikely to win the prize, though.

    • Buried In Print October 19, 2018 at 9:30 am - Reply

      I felt like there was a lot more reflection on writing and selfhood in the first book; I scribbled many more passages into my notebook. There are a lot of similarities between the two; if you found a lot to relate to in this book, I think you might also appreciate her last one. One element I really appreciate about her approach is the idea that there is no sense of true, Disney-style resolution. But I can also see where many readers would be frustrated by the sense of a decision-made-without-making-a-decision. And yet that’s so often what we humans do, passively choose without actively making a choice.

  4. annelogan17 October 18, 2018 at 9:04 pm - Reply

    I haven’t read her first book either, but I plan on reading this very soon because it’s my book club book for November! I heard her read from it in at the Giller event I went to and liked her reading-she read part of her ‘coin toss’ section 🙂

    • Buried In Print October 19, 2018 at 9:22 am - Reply

      I’ve only heard her read once – from The Middle Stories – and she presented very well for a young writer (at the time). Hopefully your book club finds lots to discuss: is there a mix of people with and without children? There are a lot of coin toss sections. That coin is rarely just flat on the dresser top.

  5. A Life in Books October 18, 2018 at 9:42 am - Reply

    I’ve not read How Should a Person Be? but given that I’m a woman who’s chosen not to have children this one was already on my list.

    • Buried In Print October 23, 2018 at 4:09 pm - Reply

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think. I’m one of those women too (although, later in life, I ended up with two step-daughters), but strangely, I didn’t feel much of a connection between her experience and mine.

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