Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot (Counterpoint 2019)
Reviewed by Yollotl Lopez
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot is like balloons filled with paint exploding against a white canvas — c. Heart Berries is Mailhot’s debut memoir told in a cyclical narrative touching upon her experience as a writer, mother, mental health patient, and partner all informed by her identity as a First Nations Canadian living in the U.S. It is the story of love, and loss, but most of all it is a story about storytelling. Mailhot writes:
“Things were created by story. The words were conjurers, and ideas were our mothers” (105).
Heart Berries is not the success story of a First Nations woman fighting mental illness and resulting victorious — a great mother, talented writer and balanced wife. On the contrary, the first and penultimate chapters named “Indian Condition” remind the reader that this story’s topics are cyclical and never ending. Heart Berries traces Mailhot’s life in spell-like narration in which she recalls her childhood, her custody battle, her tumultuous love life with her sometimes-committed partner Casey, and most of all, her writing journey.
A notable strategy in this work is the narration, which turns to the second-person, addressing people directly in the present. This direct address is mostly centered on Casey, which reads like a letter after a fight. Mailhot writes, “I feel like I become worse, the more I know you love me. We are both worse for loving each other, it seems”(71). This “you” being addressed is an ever aloof and emotionally manipulative Casey that pulls and pushes her to the brink of insanity with his mercurial nature and white male entitlement.
However, this “you” changes from Casey to her mother in the final chapter “Better Parts.” This is a significant shift in which she includes passages in Salish. This chapter calls back to the beginning of the book, in which she says “Women asked me for my story.” Despite the many passages dedicated to the tortured white male gaze of her partner, she returns the story to women, to the story of her mother. he tells of her grandmother and how her power as a storyteller began, and ends the chapter with her final address to her deceased mother. What is said in Salish? I do not know. I could find no translation. But perhaps that is the point. It is a message for her, for them, for their people. We are lucky to have been witnesses as at all.
Mailhot often repeats, “My story was maltreated.” But which story? That of a First Nations woman? A single mother? A marginalized writer? Perhaps all of them. But in the end, Mailhot’s memoir is not about redemption, complete healing or even success. It is simply a mirror reflecting truths about her existence. It is a braided narrative that is not afraid to show us the grotesque present in the places we expect to find love. And ultimately, it is a eulogy for her mother, her grandmother and all women who have had their voices silenced. This book is their scream.
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