Inside Story


Books | Two writers grapple with the demands of motherhood, real and imagined

Sara Dowse 9 July 2018 1508 words

Her world too: writer Deborah Levy. Colin McPherson/Getty Images

The Cost of Living
By Deborah Levy | Hamish Hamilton | $29.99 | 187 pages
By Sheila Heti | Harvill Secker | $35 | 284 pages

This review is inevitably the story of three women, all of them with a Jewish heritage yet each from a different generation. There’s the Canadian Sheila Heti, gen Y daughter of two Hungarian Holocaust survivors; Deborah Levy, who was born in South Africa but grew up in Britain after her father was imprisoned for membership of the African National Congress; and their rapidly ageing reader, American-born Australian me. Why this connection matters should become clearer as our story proceeds.

Deborah Levy is such a prolific and celebrated writer it’s fitting to begin with her. Nominated for the Man Booker prize for two of her novels, she has also written works of nonfiction and many plays. The Cost of Living follows on from an earlier book-length essay, Things I Don’t Want to Know, which dealt with writing, motherhood and a disintegrating marriage; this second essay records how Levy gained a new foothold after she took her two teenaged daughters to a tumbledown art deco building in a less-than-salubrious part of North London. In what is deemed to be the prime of life, it was all she could afford.

Levy is hooked, perhaps more than most writers, on the sheer mysteriousness of things, and particularly the wonder of storytelling. As anyone who has taken a writing course will tell you, there are rules, but the best writers, like Levy, give themselves permission to break them. This doesn’t mean that she is difficult to read; in fact, reading her is thrilling. But how to unpack this book? For all the ellipses in her narrative, it exhibits just the right mix of image, incident and analysis to sweep up her readers and carry them along. A lot of it is rhythm: Levy has said that she’s learned her pacing from years of playwriting, and it shows.

The Cost of Living opens with a scene in a Colombian bar: a “tanned, tattooed” forty-plus American man with muscly arms and long silver hair done up in a bun is talking to a young woman; by Levy’s estimate, she’s no more than nineteen. The man has interrupted her reading and hasn’t stopped talking, but after a time she breaks in with a story of her own. She tells him about having nearly drowned in a whirlpool off the Mexican coast, but he isn’t interested and puts her down for talking too much. Levy, the bystander, has witnessed what amounts to an epiphany. “It was not that easy to convey to him, a man much older than she was,” Levy writes, “that the world was her world too.”

If there is a theme running through all of Levy’s work it’s this need for a woman to interrupt, to find her voice and make it be heard — an imperative that’s with us still. Levy is more than twenty years younger than I am but this is precisely what women my age longed for and some of us ended up fighting for. I thought things had got better, and in many ways they have, but it’s still going on, that struggle to be heard. You’d have to be blind and deaf or on a desert island not to see why women have got bolshie again and why feminism is once again on the rise.

Levy reminds us that for all her achievements, the struggle has been hers as well. Drowning in a whirlpool, or nearly so — this is the image that propels her narrative. The business of reconstituting a life after divorce is one of the trickiest around, especially for an older woman, and for an artist of any kind it can be even more precarious. “Most urgently,” she writes, “I no longer had a study at the most professionally busy time in my life.” At the same time, she needed to take on every job offered and “winced when the bills flew through the letterbox.”

The sixth-floor flat she and her daughters had moved to was in a building inviting demolition. The lifts were unreliable; the corridor floors, awaiting new carpet, were covered in the meantime with industrial-strength plastic. She frequently had to deal with blocked pipes under her sink and other pressing repair work. Yet there was more than enough compensation. The windows gave onto a wide-shot view of London’s skies and the streets below. There was light and air. She was making a home for her daughters, and perhaps, though she doesn’t say, offering her freed self as a model. She became “physically strong at fifty,” charging up one of London’s highest hills on an e-bike with a backpack full of groceries. She learned to write through all manner of chaos. Eventually she did find a study in a friend’s backyard shed, but that, too, had its challenges. Like all the others, though, they merely formed part of the uber-challenge of what it took to make herself finally heard.

Now for Sheila Heti, a name not known to me until I read Motherhood, but at forty-one a rising star in North America, author of eight books, and on the surface at least someone who has been good at getting heard. Her oeuvre includes short stories, a novella, collaborative volumes and a children’s book. Though Motherhood is presented as a novel it seems like a memoir to me, more an autobiographical essay, but I’m not too fussed about this. Nothing makes me happier than seeing younger writers break out of the genre cages the publishing industry has attempted to confine us in over the past few decades.

Still, it’s a puzzling book. Motherhood is about Heti’s inner wrestling over whether to have a child. The other characters are her mother and father, her friends, and her partner Miles, the man with whom she would have the child if she did decide to have one. Apart from Miles and her mother, though, none of these people comes to life as they might in fiction. In an interview, Heti contends that the book is a novel because of its symbolic dimension, which she claims differentiates it from a memoir. I’m not sure I agree, but I won’t take up space arguing the toss about it now. The significant point is that Heti (or her narrator) reminds me of the nineteen-year-old in The Cost of Living’s opening scene. Whatever the putdown she endured in that seedy Colombian bar, she hasn’t faced the difficulties that Levy had, or women of my generation did.

I’m willing to admit that it’s probably me, but, novel or not, Motherhood is one of the most irritating books I’ve read. From the perspective of a woman about to turn eighty, veteran of 1970s feminism, Heti’s narrator exposes herself as one of the more egregiously self-absorbed examples of her generation. She overloads the will-I, won’t-I exploration of her dilemma with endless reflections on how, even as a girl, she never saw herself as a mother, and though the biological clock is ticking and her sex with Miles is wonderful and many of her friends have succumbed, she finds herself resisting. A baby would intrude on her writing, might intrude on her relationship, the planet is full of babies no one cares about, the planet is being ruined by babies. Yet Miles and she practise withdrawal, a risky birth-control method if there ever was one. She tries an IUD but then has it removed. She throws the I Ching, a central metaphor, as is the carving knife she keeps in front of her mirror. She drives Miles and her readers mad with the seesawing speculation and comes close to ruining her relationship with both.

And yet, for all my reaction to Heti’s hair-tearing, there are points of similarity between my story and hers. At forty-one, the same age as Heti is now (though the book covers her late thirties), and after a spate of consultation, professional and otherwise, I gave birth to my fifth child. The circumstances were precarious, the pregnancy an accident, and in wrestling with myself over whether to go ahead with it, I too, in desperation, had recourse to the I Ching. In the end, like Heti, I listened to myself. Yet tellingly, as both Heti’s and Levy’s mothers were, mine was a significant player in this. When I rang her in Los Angeles seeking her opinion, her answer was so typical of her. “Look,” she said, “you’re a grown woman now. If you want to have a baby, have a baby.”

And if you don’t, don’t. For First World women today, there are many paths — that much we’ve won. But whatever our choices, they will be influenced by the lives of our mothers. Neither Levy’s mother nor mine is alive now. Yet, as Heti has so circuitously demonstrated, motherhood is as much about our pasts as it is about our futures. Maybe even more. ●