Should I Read It? 'Heart Berries: A Memoir'

In her debut, Indigenous author Terese Marie Mailhot writes about her difficult childhood and her time in a psychiatric institution. Day 6 books columnist Becky Toyne tells us if we should read it.
Terese Marie Mailhot is a writer from Seabird Island, B.C. (Penguin Random House Canada/Isiah Mailhot)
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Earlier this week, Terese Marie Mailhot's debut book, Heart Berries: A Memoirwas released in Canada — but it's already received a lot of buzz across the border. 

Mailhot's book follows her journey through her tumultuous childhood on the Seabird Island First Nation in British Columbia, to committing herself to a psychiatric institution to help cope with her mental illness. 

According to Day 6 books columnist Becky Toyne, the book is powerful and devastating. 

Just how much buzz is this book getting? 

While Heart Berries is just making its debut in Canada, the memoir has been available for five weeks in the United States.

It also has some well-known celebrity endorsements. 

"Her book has received advance praise from people like Roxane Gay — hugely internationally successful author of Bad Feminist and Hunger, Eden Robinson, who was shortlisted for the Giller Prize last year," says Toyne. 

"Emma Watson, originally of Harry Potter fame [and] more recently feminist activist addressing the United Nations, she has a feminist book club and they're reading it at the minute. So, this is huge." 

Heart Berries has also received rave reviews from publications like The New York Times and has also been featured on The Daily Show

Terese Marie Mailhot, author of 'Heart Berries: A Memoir,' appears on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. (The Daily Show/The Comedy Network)

What's the synopsis? 

As Toyne describes it, Heart Berries "is a very personal story of the author's childhood difficulties." 

"Difficult is a massively under-representative term for her childhood, but she experiences neglect from her mother, abuse from her father, she's in and out of foster care. And when she's 17, she gets married because she's too old for foster care and she's not sure what to do," Toyne says. 

Terese Marie Mailhot, author of 'Heart Berries: A Memoir.' (Counterpoint Press)

Toyne says Mailhot also writes about the years when she is married, has a baby, and loses custody of her child [while] she is pregnant with another one. But if the story sounds like it is too "miserable," Toyne says to hang in there. 

"She commits herself to a psychiatric institution and it's there that she's given a pen and paper, and she sort of starts to write herself out of her difficulties," says Toyne of Mailhot.

"What's really important is that she is being given a voice ... and finding that it's OK to be damaged, and to suffer from mental illness, and to have problems. It's not that you have to fix them, but you can also talk about them."

What's the format? 

Heart Berries is only 160 pages long and is structured in a series of chapters, personal essays and a poetic style writing. In some instances, chapters are dedicated to Mailhot's now-husband in the form of a letter. One of those letters was written from the psychiatric facility where Mailhot once lived. 

"It's not a linear narrative. It's kind of a circular narrative, which I really loved because that's kind of the way that memory works," says Toyne. 

"I would say in some ways [the book] is genre fluid ... it is certainly a very finely crafted memoir and it employs letters and this kind of circular narrative style." 

Should you read it? 

While Toyne acknowledges that Heart Berries can be a difficult read, she says the story is compelling and definitely worth reading. 

"It is a story about neglect and abuse and also intergenerational difficulties. She talks about the fact that her grandmother is a residential school survivor," Toyne says. 

"She talks very frankly about her mental illness, about her PTSD that she's diagnosed with, about harming herself [and] about harming her partner. But also, there's just this huge love in there that she has for her sons and for the partner who is now her husband. It is a very powerful read."

Heart Berries: A Memoir, is published by Doubleday Canada.


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