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Book Club check-in: How Terese Marie Mailhot tells her story through devastating prose

caption: The KUOW Book Club is reading Terese Marie Mailhot's "Heart Berries."
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The KUOW Book Club is reading Terese Marie Mailhot's "Heart Berries."
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This is KUOW's book club, and we just read through the first half of Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir "Heart Berries." I'm your club guide, Katie Campbell. Let's get into it.

Parul Sehgal of The New York Times wrote in her review of "Heart Berries" that it is “a sledgehammer.” That’s the perfect word for it, so I’m stealing it. Mailhot’s writing hits you like one anyway. I frequently found myself releasing air in a big huff, like I’d been sucker punched. Her story feels literally striking, each paragraph a raising of the hammer before she swings it back down to knock the reader back.

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Take this selection after she went to her partner Casey’s house:

I went back. I went back more than once or four times or five. Every time, you were baking, or enjoying your quiet life alone. Once, you had a woman there. I still went back, later. You let me in every time. Eventually, I stopped asking if we could be together again. Page 56

I wrote in my notes just one word after reading this: devastating. And that’s how I react to so much of what Mailhot describes, like this line:

Even if I never ate again, I could never present myself so meekly. PAGE 40

She seems to say this as a criticism of herself, but all I can see is her strength. To be meek should not mean to be loved. But I can see how her struggles to feel loved and accepted and wanted have led her to conflate the two.

Then again, maybe I’m projecting or putting words in her mouth, something I want to be conscious of as I, a white woman, read and reflect on an Indigenous woman’s story. I appreciate how Mailhot calls attention to whiteness in the systems around her.

Her description of self-esteem as a “white invention” and the juxtaposition with her therapist’s idea that she sought affirmation through the external was particularly striking. I’ve heard this before in my years of reporting, especially in communities of color — how the perception of the individual can be held above community in white spaces. Consider this passage:

In white culture, forgiveness is synonymous with letting go. In my culture, I believe we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony. Pain is not framed like a problem with a solution. I don’t even know that white people see transcendence that way we do. I’m not sure that their dichotomies apply to me. PAGE 28

It’s here that I should acknowledge that I cannot help but jot down what I think could be solutions to some of her problems — a bit of Monday morning quarterbacking because, as a woman who recognizes some of herself in these pages, I cannot help it.

For one, I’m struck by how powerfully this woman writes and reflects, and yet how fiercely she blames herself or tries to mold herself to fit what someone else (read: her partner Casey) wants. The line I cite above about not being able to present herself so meekly, for example, is in reference to a woman she has imagined with Casey in her absence, a prim and proper (and meek) creature. She imagines this woman and is later confronted by the fact that she all but exists. Casey describes a woman who “puts the toilet seat up when she’s done peeing.” He brags about it! And Mailhot, channeling what I hope is the collective outrage of her readers, asks the question I had: “Who the f--- would do that?”

Yet she goes back to Casey. I gasp a lot while reading "Heart Berries," but this got the loudest exasperated noise out of me.

What makes me feel this most deeply is how Mailhot seems to admire in others the qualities in herself that she criticizes, her boldness chief among them. That boldness comes through clearly in her writing, making for a thoughtful, sometimes tense reading experience.

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If you have thoughts about the first half of "Heart Berries," send them to me at kcampbell@kuow.org. I just might share them in our book club newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

We're finishing up "Heart Berries" on June 24. Look out for analysis — and more — on our series page.

Correction notice, 11:08 p.m. on 6/12/2024: A previous version of this article used an incorrect pronoun for Parul Sehgal.

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