Myths and Memories

In their recent novels, Sarah Henstra and Sheila Heti consider contemporary women’s expanded sexual and reproductive choices in the context of a long history of oppressive gender roles, including classical and mythological antecedents. While Henstra’s central character recalls the charged campus dynamics of her young adulthood, Heti’s narrator dissects her own qualms about whether she wants to become a mother.

Throughout Heti’s Motherhood, the narrator (who is not named) fears that having a child would dilute her sense of vocation as a writer; conversely, she worries that missing out on the experience of motherhood will leave her feeling bereft and incomplete—perhaps even as a writer. She muses about the painful sources of her ambivalence:

Maybe I feel betrayed by the woman inside of me who can’t bring herself to do this thing. Or maybe I feel betrayed by my mother, for not devoting herself to me and creating whatever loving memories must be created in a child to make her want to repeat the process again. Or maybe it’s a part of me that goes deeper than that—my lifelong desire to leave my family and never be part of a new one. (128)

Oscillating between these and other concerns—her partner’s frustrating unwillingness to share responsibility for making the decision, her friends’ hopes that she will join them in the experience of motherhood—the narrator gradually works her way through to a resolution that she can live with, aided by coin tosses that grant sometimes confounding yes/no responses to her questions.

At times Motherhood can seem claustrophobic in its relentless focus on the narrator’s own feelings and her apparent lack of empathy. She chafes at the loss of attention and love from her child-bearing friends, noting “I resent the spectacle of all this breeding” as they “turn with open arms to a new life, hoping to make a happiness greater than their own, rather than tending to the already-living.” But as the novel explores how the narrator is one in a long line of grieving women, her family’s history informed by mostly silenced Holocaust experiences of devastating loss, Heti conveys a more nuanced portrait of the character’s anxiety to sustain connections.

Classical tropes and myths are central to Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word, winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction. In Henstra’s first novel for adult readers, several young women attending an Ivy League college during the 1990s become devotees of a charismatic women’s studies professor; her popular course on classical myth and gender helps inspire her students’ radical thinking about power, violence, and retribution.

As the novel opens, Karen, the narrator, learns of the death of an old friend whose memorial service is coincidentally slated to take place in the city where Karen will be attending a conference, and not far from their college. The trip precipitates memory of her second year of college, when she was inducted into a tight-knit circle of women who shared an off-campus house. After a series of incidents at a notorious fraternity that included allegations of drugging and sexually assaulting unwitting victims, the women hatch a plan to expose the arrogant assailants. But their approach leads to unanticipated damage, and Karen struggles to make sense of her role and responsibility. At one point, Karen interrupts her roommates’ critique of sexual violence and misogyny to pose a crucial question: “Are the right people suffering for your actions?”

The Red Word poses uncomfortable questions about sexual agency, gender, and power, exploring recent concerns with campus rape culture through the perspectives of students from a previous generation, not long after the Montreal Massacre altered discussions about the salience of feminism. Henstra’s writing vividly conjures up the fervent convictions of her characters in this intensely allusive work where each section is named for a classical term or rhetorical device. While illuminating how ideological commitments can prompt dangerous choices, Henstra does not single out feminism as the problem, but rather a surfeit of self-righteousness. The Red Word is a compelling and provocative novel that merits broad discussion.

Both of these novels take seriously the idea of moral choices and accountability. They consider how the ramifications of individual decisions ripple outwards as women confront the inadequacy of social scripts that consign them to roles—girlfriend, student, daughter, mother—that are not capacious enough for these restless, thoughtful protagonists to inhabit without chafing.

This review “Myths and Memories” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 157-158.

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