Terese Marie Mailhot’s “Heart Berries” was awash with praise before it even debuted. The memoir holds a spot on “Most Anticipated Books of 2018” lists in major publications, and for good reason. This book is an exciting step forward for representation in literature, and the arts in general.
Mailhot, raised on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest, writes with heart-wrenching earnestness about her upbringing, mental illness, poverty, broken romantic relationships, and her experience as a Native woman in a society controlled by white people. Her story is unpolished in a way that is sometimes distracting, but ultimately speaks to her honesty.
The book’s structure is a bit unclear. Mailhot wrote most of it during a short stay at a psychiatric hospital. She checked herself in after trying to commit suicide on the condition that she be allowed to write in a notebook she brought with her. In a way that feels random, the narrative switches between very raw, but very thoughtful journal entries and letters, to former lovers, to more polished sections where Mailhot sets the scene as would an author of a novel.
Similarly jarring is the way Mailhot goes on tangents without shame. Often in the same paragraph, she will be describing a setting, and then her thoughts will creep in to take over the rest of the paragraph. She doesn’t bother to use transitions, perhaps because she is experimenting with narrative writing as she writes her journal, and is therefore not concerned with committing herself to a specific form. Her decision to do so feels more unprofessional than it does raw and unfiltered.
Mailhot’s writing is filled with many clichés. Her description of a psychiatric hospital doesn’t add more description than those in Ned Vizzini’s young adult novel, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” a quintessential novel describing life within a psychiatric hospital. Mailhot excessively describes drab cafeteria food and, as can be a common trope in memoirs, asks herself, “What am I doing here?” when she encounters other patients who, unlike her, suffer from psychosis. While these kinds of observations are appropriate for a book like Vizzini’s geared toward a younger audience, they feel out of place in a work written for older readers.
But other clichés feel appropriate. Mailhot’s letter to a former lover is filled with dime-a-dozen lines such as, “You used me,” and “Do you still love me? I still want you,” and “I was dramatic and unhinged.” However, a letter to a former lover is meant to be messy, and these lines communicate the universality of Mailhot’s experiences despite the specificity of her struggles. This universality is important because it contributes to the humanizing representation of a Native woman, demonstrating to readers of all audiences that they can relate to her experiences.
Beneath the amateurish outer layer of Mailhot’s writing, her artistry shines though. She writes about the pain of her experiences with crushing realism in statements such as, “I chewed the top and bottom of my lip so much that I chewed part of my Cupid’s bow off permanently—the most protruding part on my heart-shaped mouth never grew back.” Mailhot is able to capture significant poetic sadness with her prose, making “Heart Berries” worth reading.
“Heart Berries” is ultimately a gorgeous piece of writing that would have benefitted from a better editor. A tighter narrative structure would have allowed Mailhot to truly showcase the beauty of her writing and her story.
—Staff writer Danielle L. Eisenman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org