To be or not to be... a mother? Rag­ing against so­ci­ety’s ex­pec­ta­tions of women

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS - CLAIRE ALLFREE

At a book fes­ti­val in Dublin, the child­less nar­ra­tor of Sheila Heti’s new novel en­coun­ters a fel­low fe­male child­less writer, who says to her, con­fid­ingly: “With women our age, the first thing one al­ways wants to know about an­other woman is whether she has chil­dren, and if she doesn’t, whether she is go­ing to. It’s like a civil war: which side are you on?”

The fact that women are still per­va­sively de­fined by whether they have cho­sen to have a child or not is railed against with oc­ca­sional bril­liance in Moth­er­hood.

The nar­ra­tor, whom we are in­vited to as­sume is Heti her­self, is a suc­cess­ful Cana­dian writer in her late thir­ties, tor­mented not only by the ques­tion of whether she wants to have a child (she mainly thinks she doesn’t) but by the gen­eral as­sump­tion from friends, strangers and so­ci­ety at large that she even­tu­ally will. The writ­ing of this novel — which, in its in­ti­mate jum­ble of ob­ser­va­tions and feel­ings across sev­eral years, mostly re­sem­bles a mem­oir — is not only a chance for her to work through how she feels but also an act of re­sis­tance.

Near the end, Heti con­fesses the book has be­come a “pro­phy­lac­tic”. The work of pro­duc­ing it has been a thing to do while she waits for her child-bear­ing years to pass, a “raft that will carry me just so long and so far, that my ques­tions can no longer be asked”.

Rachel Cusk wrote with pal­pa­ble fury at the start of her 2002 mem­oir, A Life’s Work, that “child­birth and moth­er­hood are the anvil upon which sex­ual in­equal­ity was forged”. Heti doesn’t have Cusk’s po­lit­i­cal fo­cus but she is ex­cel­lent at dis­man­tling a cer­tain cul­tural com­pla­cency about the achieve­ments of fem­i­nism — the delu­sion that, just be­cause a few skir­mishes have been won, the bat­tle for women’s right to lead their life in any way they choose is over.

For her part, the nar­ra­tor wor­ries it is self­ish not to have a child and bucks in an­guish against her own body and its treach­er­ous monthly gear­ing-up for preg­nancy that has such a cat­a­strophic

im­pact on her moods. In per­haps the book’s most chill­ing mo­ment, she re­calls an en­counter with a doc­tor who tried in vain to dis­suade her from hav­ing an abor­tion.

“There is some­thing threat­en­ing about a woman who is not oc­cu­pied with chil­dren... What is she go­ing to do in­stead? What sort of trou­ble will she make?’” she writes.

Heti, whose 2013 novel How Should a Per­son Be? was a crit­i­cal hit, draws heav­ily here on the tech­niques of auto-fic­tion, in which the bor­ders be­tween fic­tion and au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, as in Karl Ove Knaus­gård’s My Strug­gle se­ries, are de­lib­er­ately blurred. This can pri­ori­tise the value of per­sonal tes­ti­mony pretty much over any­thing else, even lit­er­ary style, and Heti pushes the tech­nique to a point that se­verely tests the reader’s pa­tience.

Her book is form­less, ram­bling, repet­i­tive, seem­ingly gov­erned by the prin­ci­ple that any thought or emo­tion the nar­ra­tor ex­pe­ri­ences de­serves to be recorded, re­gard­less of its qual­ity or use­ful­ness.

Her gaze is so re­lent­lessly turned to­wards her­self that her analysis can feel ir­ri­tat­ingly se­lec­tive.

The nar­ra­tor con­ceives of her­self as a writer, above and be­yond be­ing a woman, which is a fun­da­men­tal rea­son of hers for not want­ing a child, but she isn’t at all in­ter­ested in the ob­vi­ous truth that you can be a writer and a mother, and suc­ceed at both.

She views friends who have chil­dren as hav­ing aban­doned her, but the fact that she ac­knowl­edges this feel­ing doesn’t make it any less child­ish.

She be­comes more stim­u­lat­ing when she strays be­yond her­self to her Jewish her­itage, and the dark shadow of the Holo­caust. The Jewish im­pulse, she writes, is to re­pop­u­late — oth­er­wise “the Nazis will have won”. Yet in an as­ton­ish­ing, all-too-brief re­pu­di­a­tion of this idea, she writes that she doesn’t care “if the hu­man race dies out”.

To­wards the end, she sinks into de­pres­sion, and you won­der if her worry over her de­ci­sion not to have a child is re­ally the cause of what has ev­i­dently be­come a pro­found un­hap­pi­ness. There seems to be some greater ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis lurk­ing be­neath the sur­face. But she fin­ishes writ­ing the book in a spirit of vic­tory, and, not only out of re­lief that we too have come to the end, we can’t help cheer­ing with her.

Auto-fic­tion: we are in­vited to as­sume the nar­ra­tor is Heti her­self

FIC­TION Moth­er­hood Sheila Heti Harvill Secker, hard­back, 282 pages, €25

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