Heart Berries is hard to sum up in one word or two. In some ways, the book is a reclamation of selfhood after physical violation, and of collective identity after centuries of indigenous erasure.
It’s a journey across time and place. In the same chapter, Mailhot takes the reader from her childhood on the Seabird Indian Reserve in British Columbia to her adult experience in a psychiatric hospital where she received treatment for PTSD and Bipolar II.
It’s also a love story. Mailhot explores her complicated relationship with her husband (to whom much of the novel is addressed) and delves four generations deep into her family. She examines their individual burdens, as well as the ancestral pain they bear together.
Mailhot interweaves childhood recollections with adult experience, creating a kind of mosaic of memories — traumas and triumphs alike. The grace, immediacy, and dry wit of her writing make for a stirring portrait of healing, body, and soul.
Organized into eleven chapters, she floats between the stages of her life, almost like a dream sequence. Her anecdotes are deliberately curated, revealed, and brought to life by their proximity to other memories. The structure mirrors the process of recollection as Mailhot snaps back and forth in time, tracing themes and looking for significance. The reader also has work to do in this patch-worked narrative, logging Mailhot’s experience into memory and piecing together meaning alongside the author.
Mailhot’s voice is refined, but not overly restrained. She writes with all of herself — complete with idiosyncrasies and humor.
She remembers a dog she reluctantly agreed to watch for a day as, “The type of dog that was meant to be roadkill, but rescue missions for stupid dogs interfered with the natural world.” Additionally, one description of her husband reads, “You looked like a hamburger fried in a doughnut.” (To be meant as a compliment.)
Mailhot tackles her more complex subjects with the same discerning eye. Her reflections on pain are especially provocative. She writes of an inter-generational pain — a burden carried for a lifetime and handed down as “blood memories of sorrow.” She deconstructs the inequalities coded into these experiences, writing to her husband, “You are so inefficient with pain. I realized you never had to cultivate it the way I did. The way Indian women do.”
She explores the emotion as a self-defining force, one that cannot be lessened, but might be managed or transformed. “Our boys, their compassion to will away inherited sorrow, it’s what makes them good and mine and Indian. Had I not been born and cultivated in this history, I wonder how dim and dumb my life would be?”
Motherhood, heartbreak, and mental health receive similarly multi-faceted treatments. She doesn’t shrink any aspect of her story into bite-sized pieces. Heart Berries is dense with Mailhot’s personal history and the ancestral narrative she calls forth. As a reader, you feel the richness and the weight.
In an afterword interview by the poet Joan Naviyuk Kane, Mailhot explains her frustration with the critical pushback against memoirs which deal with trauma, especially women’s experiences: “People seem so resistant to let women write about these experiences, and they sometimes resent when the narrative sounds familiar. We can write about it in new ways, but what value are we placing on newness? Familiarity is boring, but these fucking people — they keep hurting us in the same ways.”
Her point reminded me of a Vox article called “The complicated, inadequate language of sexual violence” written by Constance Grady in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein revelations. Grady and Mailhot both speak to different social injustices, before underscoring the power and challenge of naming the unnamed.
In Heart Berries, Mailhot pushes the boundaries of the memoir form, perhaps laying the groundwork for entirely new literary forms as Parul Sehgal suggests in her review for The New York Times. But even more importantly, Mailhot is creating her own terms, providing future writers with a context for treating indigenous female identity not as an essentialized trope, but as a lens through which to consider mental health, the Americas, and narrative forms.
Clara Malley is an Editorial and Community Intern for The Fullest based in NYC. Find her at @claramalley on Instagram or say hi at firstname.lastname@example.org.