The Spring 2018 Book Room
Is it more noble to create art or to procreate? Is it possible to capture the reality of being human on the page without experiencing one of life’s most central experiences—being a mother? These are the questions Sheila Heti takes on in her latest novel, Motherhood (Penguin), with her distinctive blend of fiction and memoir. Her protagonist, in this case, converses with an ancient Chinese text, flipping coins, taking the answers as true, and creating a structure for the book’s mental gymnastics. This indecisiveness is the book’s tension and its strength. The fear of missing out on motherhood is, at its core, a fear of missing out on the experiences of all the narrator’s alternative selves. “I always believed there were several possible lives I could be living, and they were arranged in my head like dolls on a mantelpiece... I dusted and turned those lives around,” Heti writes. Her last novel asked How Should A Person Be?, and now she takes the question one step further: how should a woman be? Can we honour the memory of our mothers with art instead of grandchildren? In the process, Heti proves once again that she is a master at asking the right questions and leaving the reader to consider whether asking the question is, itself, more important than providing its answer.
Novelist Carrianne Leung’s first short-story collection, That Time I Loved You (HarperCollins), dives into the hidden lives of residents in a newly built Scarborough suburb in the late 1970s. The suicides of three neighbours in quick succession force residents to look inward: adults confront the sources of their unhappiness, and the young confront the world they’re on the verge of entering. The latter stories, most of which revolve around a Chinese-Canadian girl named June and her friends, are the most captivating. Occasionally, That Time I Loved You can feel slightly disjointed, almost like two separate collections—Leung was ambitious to try to pack so much into ten stories. At the end, readers will find that while she doesn’t always succeed, the collection is a compelling read.—Rob Csernyik
As Kate McKenna writes in the first pages of No Choice (Fernwood), “this is, above all, a story of bravery and perseverance.” No Choice chronicles the thirty-year fight to end the abortion ban on Prince Edward Island, drawing on interviews, deep archival research, and the personal insight of a born-and-raised islander—McKenna herself. Though she offers a thorough account of both sides of the conflict, McKenna writes from an ardently pro-choice perspective, providing a valuable portrait of the personal costs of speaking out in a small, conservative and predominantly Catholic place. McKenna’s reverence for PEI’s generations of activists culminates with the movement’s hard-earned 2016 victory: the province’s announcement that abortion services would return with the construction of a new reproductive health centre. As the fight to defend abortion rights continues south of the border, No Choice provides a timely reminder that they’ve been hard-won in Canada, too.—Madi Haslam
Joelle Barron’s first poetry collection, Ritual Lights (Goose Lane), is contemporary, stunning and deeply personal. In “Universal Miscarriage,” Baron writes, “I thought I could forget all I really wanted, to see you slide warm and gooey from between my legs. Days after I cancelled, you fell apart.” The collection is dotted with memories of family and Canada, touching on the country’s geography—such as the “Galápagosian beauty” of British Columbia’s Halfmoon Bay—and its Indigenous land, on which Barron lives. Text messages, verses and iPhone notes, published in their entirety, are woven through Ritual Lights, overlapping one another in a rhythmic way. Barron’s openness about their own insecurity—“I’ve never felt I was worth more than my body”—is an illustration of the strength of personality that imbues their words, especially in the aftermath of a sexual assault, which they address in this unique and powerful debut.—Étienne Lajoie
Several years ago, five hundred unknown fairy tales were discovered in a German archive. For fans of the genre, especially the gore of the Brothers Grimm, the long-lost tales by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth didn’t disappoint. In one, a mother who hates her baby refuses to feed it, and the baby, taking its revenge, nurses ceaselessly until it outgrows its swaddling, strangles to death, and curses its mother to become pregnant with a non-human fetus and then die. “This book is not for children,” writes Canadian illustrator Willow Dawson, who seized on the von Schönwerth tales as the perfect material for a graphic novel. The resulting collection, White as Milk, Red as Blood (Knopf), illustrated by Dawson and translated by Shelley Tanaka, is a gorgeous and lively work of art built around the best and most shocking of the stories. The text, translated with powerful simplicity, is physically woven through Dawson’s colourful illustrations, mixing the style of old-fashioned fairy tale books with a woodcut-like modern look. Beware the ghost children, serial killers and vengeful maidens that may keep you up at night—but rush out and buy this book anyway.—Selena Ross