This Being/Becoming/Asking the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction.
I’m also counting this as the first entry in my new “Three on a Theme” series, where I’ll review three books that have something significant in common and tell you which one to pick up if you want to read into the topic for yourself. I have another medical-themed one lined up for this Friday as a second ‘Being the Expert’ entry.
I never set out to read several memoirs of women’s experience of postpartum depression this year; it sort of happened by accident. I started with the graphic memoir and then chanced upon a recent pair of traditional memoirs published in the UK – in fact, I initially pitched them as a dual review to the TLS, but they’d already secured a reviewer for one of the books.
Inferno: A Memoir by Catherine Cho
I was delighted to see this prediction of mine make the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist. Coincidentally, I was already halfway through the book on my Kindle (via NetGalley) at that point, but its nomination gave me the push to finish in a timely manner. Cho, a Korean American literary agent based in London, experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son, Cato. She and her husband James had gone back to the USA when Cato was two months old to introduce him to friends and family, ending with a big Korean 100-day celebration for him at her in-laws’ home in New Jersey. Almost as soon as they got to her in-laws’, though, she started acting strangely: she was convinced there were cameras watching their every move, and Cato’s eyes were replaced with “devil’s eyes.” She insisted they leave for a hotel, but soon she would be in an emergency room, followed by a mental health ward.
Cho alternates between her time on the New Bridge ward – writing in a notebook, trying to act normal whenever James visited, expressing milk from painfully swollen breasts, and interacting with her fellow patients with all their quirks – and a rundown of the rest of her life before the breakdown. Her Kentucky childhood was marked by her mathematician father’s detachment and the sense that she and her brother were together “in the trenches,” pitted against the world. In her twenties she worked in a New York City corporate law firm and got caught up in an abusive relationship with a man she moved to Hong Kong to be with. All along she weaves in her family’s history and Korean sayings and legends that explain their values.
Twelve days. That was the length of her hospitalization in early 2018, but Cho so painstakingly depicts her mindset that readers are fully immersed in an open-ended purgatory – a terrifying time when she questioned her sanity and whether she was cut out for motherhood. “Koreans believe that happiness can only tempt the fates and that any happiness must be bought with sorrow,” she writes. She captures both extremes, of suffering and joy, in this vivid account.
What Have I Done? An honest memoir about surviving postnatal mental illness by Laura Dockrill
Dockrill is a British children’s author. Her style reminded me of others of her contemporaries who do a good line in light, witty, warts-and-all, here’s-what-it’s-really-like-to-be-a-woman books: Dolly Alderton, Caitlin Moran and the like. From a labor that quickly deviated from her birth plan due to an emergency Caesarean to the usual post-baby blues to full-blown psychosis, Dockrill recreates her experience with fluid dialogue and italicized passages of her paranoid imaginings. Her memoir resembles Cho’s in its broad strokes but also in certain particulars, like imagining surveillance cameras and hearing a voice in her head telling her she is a bad mum. I skimmed this one because of a library deadline and because of an overload on similar content. I had a greater affinity for Cho’s literary style compared to the more between-girlfriends, self-help bent of this memoir. With the glossary and resources at the end, though, I’d say this one would be more useful for someone going through the same thing.
Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression by Teresa Wong (2019)
Memoir as letter and as graphic novel. Wong narrates the traumatic birth of her first child and her subsequent postpartum depression in black-and-white sketches that manage to feel breezy and fun despite the heavy subject matter. “I felt lost. I had no maternal instincts and no clue how I was supposed to take care of a baby,” she writes to Scarlet. “Your first two months in the world were the hardest two months of my life.”
For Wong, a combination of antidepressants, therapy, a postnatal doula, an exercise class, her mother’s help, and her husband’s constant support got her through, and she knows she’s lucky to have had a fairly mild case and to have gotten assistance early on. I loved the “Not for the Faint of Heart” anatomical spreads and the reflections on her mother’s tough early years after arriving in Canada from China.
The drawing and storytelling style is similar to that of Sarah Laing and Debbie Tung. The writing is more striking than the art, though, so I hope that with future work the author will challenge herself to use more color and more advanced designs (from her Instagram page it looks like she is heading that way).
My thanks to publicist Beth Parker for the free e-copy for review.
What I learned:
All three authors emphasize that motherhood does not always come naturally; “You might not instantly love your baby,” as Dockrill puts it. There might be a feeling of detachment –from the baby and/or from one’s new body. They all note that postpartum depression is common and that new mothers should not be ashamed of seeking help from medical professionals, baby nurses, family members and any other sources of support.
These two passages were representative for me:
Cho: “I don’t feel a rush of love or an overwhelming weight of responsibility, emotions that I’d been expecting. Instead, I felt curious, like I’d just been introduced to a stranger. He was a creature, an idea, not even human yet, just a being, a life. … I’d thought I would reclaim my body after birth, but instead, it was now a tool, something to sustain life.”
Dockrill: “If childbirth and motherhood are the most natural, universal, common things in the world, the things that women have been doing since the beginning of time, then why does nobody tell us that there’s a good chance that you might not feel like yourself after you have a baby? That you might even lose your head? That you might not ever come back?”
Nobody Told Me by Hollie McNish, one of my current bedside books, also deals with complicated pregnancy emotions and the chaotic early months of motherhood.
If you read just one, though… Make it Inferno by Catherine Cho.
Can you see yourself reading any of these books?
I have way too much to say about this terrific debut novel, and there’s every danger of me slipping into plot summary because, though it seems lighthearted on the surface, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators. So I’m going to adapt a format that has worked well for other bloggers (e.g. Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses) and pull out four reasons why you must be sure not to miss this book.
- Bosom Friends. Have you ever had, or longed for, what Anne Shirley calls a “bosom friend”? If so, you’ll love watching the friendship develop between narrator Sharon Kisses and her business partner, Mel Vaught. In many ways they are opposites. Lanky, blonde Mel is a loud, charismatic lesbian who uses drugs and alcohol to fuel a manic pace of life. She’s the life of every party. Sharon, on the other hand, is a curvy brunette and neurotic introvert who’s always falling in love with men but never achieving real relationships. They meet in Professor McIntosh’s Introduction to Sketch class at a small college and a decade later are still working together. They win acclaim for their first full-length animated feature, Nashville Combat, based on Mel’s dysfunctional upbringing in the Central Florida swamps. But they see each other through some really low lows, too, like the death of Mel’s mother and Sharon’s punishing recovery from a stroke at the age of 32.
She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.
- The Value of Work. Kayla Rae Whitaker was inspired by her childhood obsession with dark, quirky cartoons like Beavis and Butthead and Ren and Stimpy. Books about artists sometimes present the work as magically fully-formed, rather than showing the arduous process behind it. Here, though, you track Mel and Sharon’s next film from a set of rough sketches in a secret notebook to a polished comic, following it through storyboarding, filling-in and final edits. It’s a year of all-nighters, poor diet and substance abuse. But work – especially the autobiographical projects these characters create – is also saving. Even when it seems the well has run dry, creativity always resurges. I also appreciated how the novel contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy.
The work will always be with you, will come back to you if it leaves, and you will return to it to find that you have, in fact, gotten better, gotten sharper. It happens to you while you are asleep inside.
- Road Trips and Rednecks. I love a good road trip narrative, and this novel has two. First there’s the drive down to Florida for Mel to identify her mother, and then there’s Sharon’s sheepish return to her hometown of Faulkner, Kentucky. Here’s where the book really takes off. The sharp, sassy dialogue sparkles throughout, but the scenes with Sharon’s mom and sister are particularly hilarious. What’s more, the contrast between the American heartland and the flashy New York City life Mel and Sharon have built works brilliantly. Although in the Kentucky section Whitaker portrays some obese Americans you’d be tempted to call white trash, she never resorts to cruel hillbilly stereotypes. The author herself is from rural eastern Kentucky and paints the place in a tender light. She even makes Louisville – where the friends go to meet up with Sharon’s old neighbor and first crush, Teddy Caudill – sound like quite an appealing tourist destination!
I used it to hate it here. How could I have possibly hated this? This is me. I sprang from this place.
- Open Your Trunk. This is a mantra arising from Mel and Sharon’s second movie, Irrefutable Love, which is autobiographical for Sharon this time – revolving around a traumatic incident from her shared past with Teddy, her string of crushes, and her stroke recovery. One powerful message of the novel is that you can’t move on in life unless you confront the crap that’s happened to you. As humorous as it is, it’s also a weighty book in this respect. It has three pivot points, moments so grim and surprising that I could hardly believe Whitaker dared to put them in. (The first is Sharon’s stroke; the others I won’t spoil.) This means the ending is not the super-happy one I might have wanted, but it’s realistic.
Anything that makes you in that way, anything that makes you hurt and hungry in that way, is worth investigating. … When you take the things that happen to you, the things that make you who are, and you use them, you own them.
I thought the timeline could be a little tighter and the novel was unnecessarily crass in places. For me, the road trips were the best bits and the rest never quite matched up. But this is still bound to be one of my top novels of the year. I think every reader will see him/herself in Sharon, and we all know a Mel; for some it might be the other way around. Like A Little Life and even The Essex Serpent, this asks how friendship and work can carry us through. Meanwhile, the cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy.
An early favorite for 2017. Don’t miss it.
The Animators was published by Random House and Scribe UK on January 31st. My thanks to Sophie Leeds of Scribe for sending a free copy for review.