I was so looking forward to Heart Berries. I’ve recently rediscovered memoir (mostly thanks to audiobooks) and this one has been popping up all over the bookish internet as a book to look out for in 2018. Mailhot’s memoir deals with her childhood on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest, her relationship with her parents and her struggles with motherhood, and her experience navigating the world as a young American Indian woman dealing with mental illness.
Unfortunately, I just could not connect to this one. Almost from the first page, it felt disjointed–jumping, sentence to sentence, between times, places, events, thoughts. I felt immediately lost.
I tried to let go and simply let the narrative wash over me. I prefer a kind of storytelling that I can follow easily, that always circles back, even if it isn’t linear–but that’s not the only kind of storytelling of value. So I tried to open myself up to the kind of storytelling in this memoir–poetic, abrupt, fragmented. But my confusion was just too distracting. I was lost trying to figure out where I was in time, why Mailhot was telling one particular story and then another, what one paragraph had to do with the one that followed it. I was so caught up in trying to untangle the narrative that I kept missing the story itself. I listened to the audiobook, and I found myself continually forgetting what I’d just listened to.
At the sentence level, the writing is gorgeous. Mailhot has a gift for literary punches, lines so sharp and shimmering they cut. There were some truly beautiful and haunting images and insights in these pages. She is a talented writer, and I have a deep respect for the bones of her work. The book is also so raw, so open, honest, and vulnerable. She writes with remarkable candor about her own mistakes and failures, as a mother and human. She also writes with power, passion, and anger about being a young American Indian women in a society that demonizes, fetishizes, and ignores native people. The emotional journey underlying this book is palpable. The writing, though I found it hard to relate to, was clearly alive.
Still, I struggled to find the common thread. A week after finishing it, I’m still trying to figure out what the book was about. It’s about so many things: parenthood, motherhood, grief, trauma, marriage, mental illness, childhood abuse, coming of age as a writer—but there wasn’t an arc that I could discern, no movement from one place to another, no narrative structure that led me somewhere. It felt less like a story and more like a beautiful, honest, and heartbreaking jumble of thoughts.
Heart Berries reminded me of why I have so much trouble with memoir. In my opinion, having a story to tell is not enough to write a good memoir, and neither is being able to write gorgeous sentences. Like fiction–like all writing, really—it’s about the architecture. My favorite books have heft, a shape I can draw out like a map, a structure that transforms a collection of ideas and memories into something with both weight and movement. That’s what Heart Berries was lacking for me.
However, since I finished it, I’ve been trying to unpack why I disliked it so much. I’ve been wondering if there’s a structure here I was just too lazy to see, or couldn’t access because of the ways I’ve been trained to tell and hear stories in a white society. I read one review that spoke about how Mailhot’s writing style reflected their own experience with depression and mania–something I hadn’t considered. For me, it didn’t work as a memoir, but I think it’s still a valuable book. Native voices are so often silenced and ignored, and when they aren’t, mainstream culture tries to put them in stereotypical boxes, rather than listening to the real, whole, varied experiences of indigenous people. I refuse to write something off as “not good” simply because it didn’t work for me.
I’ve come to two conclusions:
First: I listened to this one on audio, which is my default for memoir, but may have been the wrong choice for this particular book. Mailhot doesn’t narrate it, and while the narrator was good, I think the book suffered in the audio format. It’s such an unusual, nonlinear, jumbled narrative–closer to poetry than prose. I don’t think I had time to properly digest it while listening to it. I’m starting to think that if I had been able to see the paragraphs, the section breaks, the way the words appeared on the page, it might have come together differently in my mind.
Second: not all stories are meant for all people. I could not relate to this story the way Mailhot presented it. But I think it will likely resonate with others. Maybe it will resonate with readers who’ve had similar experiences, with indigenous people, with those who’ve lived with mental illness. Perhaps Mailhot’s way of storytelling is also your way of hearing stories. Perhaps you’ll intimately understand her various jolts and zigs and zags, the sharpness of her turns, the quickness of her transitions–in a way that I could not.
All of our brains untangle stories in different ways. This book was not for me, but I’m glad it exists in the world.