Author: Terese Marie Mailhot
First Published: February 6, 2018
Genres: Feminism, Memoir, Mental Health Fiction
Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman's coming of age on the Seabird Island Band in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot's mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father―an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist―who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.
Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn't exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept. Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.
What an outstanding memoir, Heart Berries was unputdownable and is one of the few books that I would honestly read again. Terese’s prose is precise and strikingly beautiful even when she is talking about difficult topics. I read the book over the course of a day at work and I was fully absorbed in the author’s story.
“I was not right to want to die. I didn’t want to leave my family. I liked my mind and its potential. I knew the type of burden I was. I was like my mother.”
This book was a lot of things. It is a book about reckoning with mental illness and childhood abuse, about motherhood and her struggle to maintain personal relationships, about finding an indigenous voice that is authentic to her. Heart Berries is short but tells a complex story about the author, an indigenous woman raised in poverty and a bipolar single mother suffering from post-traumatic stress.
As a warning so there are no surprises, Terese will not be a person that everyone will like. She unabashedly admits to using men in the past, some of her views and insecurities can come off as mildly racist, and there is one point in the novel where she commits an act of violence against a partner. No matter what that partner does, violence is wrong, period.
“I wanted as much of the world as I could take, and I didn’t have the conscience to be ashamed.”
At the same time, these omissions show how human Terese is. She is flawed just like everyone else, she has been hurt, she has made mistakes, she does not sugar coat the truth which is so refreshing to see in a memoir. People very often try to present themselves as an idea, their flaws are downplayed. They have the space to explain their transgressions which don’t normally happen. Not so with Heart Berries, Terese bears her heart and soul to the reader and doesn’t give excuses for anything. I find her an admirable and even relatable person for the way that she views the world and the way that she responds to emotional turmoil. I’ve struggled for a few weeks now to put my thoughts together on this book, it’s one I continue to think about since I finished reading and I’m so glad that this book is out there.
- Pros: Beautifully written memoir that is brutally honest with lyrical writing, great exploration of indigenous issues.
- Cons: The issue of relational violence is not well addressed, goes to some dark places which may turn off some readers.
- Warnings: Language, Sex, Violence, Abuse