The Small Backs of Children: Book Review

One word has exploded a world of new-to-me authors and books: podcasts.

That’s how I found out about Lidia Yuknavitch, author of two short story collections, the ground-quaking body-centric memoir, The Chronology of Water, a novel about Freud’s famous first patient, Dora: A Headcase, and her latest fiction, a heart shattering and language loving novel, The Small Backs of Children.

I don’t often review books on this blog (hey, maybe I will) but after reading my first Lidia I felt a shift, the seismic kind. So often, reading removes me from my body. You probably know what I mean, when immersed in a riveting story, you lose your physical self and float away in a time-space oblivion. But this time the opposite occurred. Reading The Small Backs of Children I was as fully aware of my body’s responses to her words as I was to my brain’s.

The book was intense and when I finished I felt shaken and stirred (sorry, but there’s a lot of drinking as well as violence and beauty). Shortly after, I began writing my first short story in two years. I know her influence left an impression on the choices I made in regards to language and the body.

Are you curious yet? My review is below, and shortly, I will be sending out a long-awaited newsletter with an exhaustive – but thrilling (!) podcast round-up. If you’re not a podcast convert yet, you may be by the end. Please consider signing up (CLICK HERE!) for my newsletter if you haven’t already. Believe me when I say you won’t be inundated. Maybe monthly, if the stars and planets align.

Now, finally…

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

This is a book about the body. Women and children’s bodies, and the violence inflicted on them during times of war and peace.

The Small Backs cover

Yuknavitch begins in the mind of an unnamed girl, in an unnamed Eastern European country, as she recalls the obliteration of her family home – and entire family – while walking in the snowy woods a year later.

In many ways, the girl is the focal point of the story, the sun which all the other characters orbit. None of these characters have names. They are a band of artists identified only by their work: writer, photographer, painter, poet, playwright, and filmmaker. When the writer of the group falls ill, unable to come back from the oceanic grief of losing her stillborn child, her friends rally to help.

The intersection of the girl and these artists make up the plot, but the idea of “plot” is used loosely as this book defies conventions on every level. Early on, Yuknavitch plays with the translucence of fiction and memoir by including biographical information in the story. The Writer even says, “Every self is a novel in progress. Every novel is a lie that hides the self.”

Is the Writer a thinly veiled Yuknavitch, an echo of her lived experience? Is she playing with us in this passage? How much of the book is based on fact and how much is fiction?

But this wonder is soon set aside. There are more pressing issues at hand. Sweeping philosophical questions with no definitive answers arise, including – how is motherhood defined, can art save lives, and what responsibility does an artist have to her subjects? All this is juxtaposed alongside explicit sequences of torture and sex (sometimes consensually, sometimes not).

Yuknavitch writes with ferocity, as if she’s daring the reader to look away. As she explains in an interview with The Rumpus, the goal of this book isn’t to entertain or comfort; the point is to agitate.

Agitation may be an understatement for some readers. Despite being deeply invested in the book, even I had some moments of discomfort, but I kept reading. Maybe it’s like a highway car accident, how other drivers slow down to look. Once viewed there is no un-seeing the carnage, and that is the point of this book. Yuknavitch wants readers to be changed, and I imagine many will.

One thing that struck me about this book was how acutely aware I was of my own body while reading it. Usually when reading fiction, I lose myself. I become unaware of the passage of time and my own physicality. But instead of disappearing, my body was complicit, cringing and humming along with the characters’ experiences.

This novel is not for the fainthearted. Trigger warnings abound. There is blood, lots of it, but as the narrator says toward the end, “You wish I would stop speaking about all this blood, but I’m afraid it’s the point.”

Yes, it is, because this is a novel about the body, about pain inflicted, but also pleasures amassed. Despite all the horror, Yuknavitch celebrates the resilience and strength of bodies. How sometimes, with luck, the heart will continue to pump despite the scars, despite the weight of grief we all carry.

(Highly) Suggested pairing: Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water.

Chronology of Water cover

What books and/or authors have you stumbled upon that have changed your life/rocked your literary world? Please share in comments. I’d love to know.

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Becoming Mother: Book Review

becoming mother cover

“New mothers need to hear the other voices of the postpartum period – ones that talk about the scary, the unpleasant, the embarrassing, and the downright soul-testing. We need to tell these stories because there is comfort in seeing that we are not forging an entirely new path. In fact, we are walking in the footprints that other mother have left behind.”

– Becoming Mother by Sharon Tjaden-Glass

When Sharon asked me if I’d be interesting in reading and reviewing her book, Becoming Mother, I immediately said yes. From what I read on her blog, and through our online conversations, her ideas about motherhood meshed with mine and I couldn’t wait for it to arrive.

But when it finally did, I stared at the beautiful cover and hesitated.

The idea of traveling back to my grief stricken pregnancy and intensely challenging postpartum period was like gazing into a deep well, whose cold dark interior I knew intimately, and for the most part, tried to avoid.

I had delved back there last year when I wrote an essay that is now part of the anthology, Mothering Through the Darkness. But it’s become apparent to me that the transformation into motherhood is not something easily exorcised – and maybe it shouldn’t it be.

When I finally took the plunge and began reading, I became instantly immersed in Sharon’s story of her pregnancy and childbirth. Yes, some of my painful memories rose up, but I forgot about the flip side – how light almost always accompanies the dark.

I remembered lying on the floor after huffing my way through a tortuous pregnancy workout DVD, and how the instructor would say in her adorable lisping French accent, “Now lie down and connect with your baby,” and I felt my future daughter flipping and gliding beneath my fingertips. Reading Sharon’s description of a similar moment, I was transported back to my own magical moment.

That’s why Sharon’s book is not just a guide for new mothers, but any woman interested in stepping back in time. There are gifts of memory and wisdom to be gleaned from retrospection, and realizing the complex and often contradictory feelings of new motherhood are not unique or unnatural, but a shared journey.

The Review

Becoming Mother is divided into six main sections, starting with Pregnancy and going all the way through the first year postpartum. Sharon writes in present tense pausing between sections with a thoughtful reflection. This unique structure keeps the pace brisk and offers the reader breathing room during transitions.

Not unlike active labor.

One thing I particularly appreciated is how the book maintains a sharp focus on the mother’s experience even after the baby is born. Instead of the mom getting shunted off to the sidelines while the newborn takes the spotlight, we remain with Sharon as she processes her physically and emotionally taxing labor and delivery.

With eloquence and clarity, she explains the ramifications of her doctor forcibly breaking her waters (without permission) and another doctor’s cold comments while stitching her up. These moments leave scars, as deep as any C-section, yet invisible to the naked eye. Sharon boldly pokes holes in the popular yet condescending mantra, “all that matters is a healthy baby” with her honest and wrenching account.

While she opted for, and succeeded in having, a natural birth, this book in no way fits tidily into any single style of mothering. In fact, Sharon blows up the assumption that mothers should opt for one style over another, encouraging women to pick and choose what works for them and their babies, and to honor flexibility over any dogma or parenting camp.

We follow Sharon into the heady and delirious days of new motherhood and for her in particular, the painful struggle with breastfeeding. She goes into great detail about this specific challenge, and what initially feels like failure.

A relatable and painful subject for many women, but any mother will certainly understand the hard-earned lesson of reality knocking against theory.

When we’re pregnant we make decisions and proclamations that often get thrown out the window when the baby arrives, thus, the crucial need for flexibility and self-forgiveness. It’s okay to change your mind, or your mindset.

Sharon captures the beauty and awe of new motherhood, as well as the less glamorous aspect of anxiety and loss with thoughtfulness and clear-eyed intelligence.

The first year of motherhood is trial by fire. No matter how much preparation or research you do, nothing can truly prepare you for the change in lifestyle, change in self, loss of identity, and the need to forge a new one.

Yet most of us try to find answers. We take classes, read books and blogs, and ask friends. Pregnant women, and their partners, are often desperate for knowledge. But most stories we hear tend to be on the extreme ends of the spectrum.

There’s the horror story variety: “My labor was 37 hours long and I almost tore in half,” and of course the classic, “You’ll never sleep again!”

While the other side oozes with pure joy and positivity: “I fell in love with my baby right away!” and, “I can’t imagine life without children.”

Neither extreme – no matter how true for the teller – is helpful for new mothers, most of whom are craving realistic answers that fall somewhere in the middle.

On the last day of my childbirth class, I remember one father asking our instructor the question on all of our minds. “But what is it like?”

We all knew what he meant by “it.” He wasn’t referring to the topic being addressed; he wanted to know what being a parent looked like, felt like. He wanted details, minutia. The truth.

I remember people laughing a little, nervously, because we all knew the question couldn’t be answered, certainly not in a few pithy lines on our way out the door. Yet we listened and hung on every word, hoping for some wisdom to carry us to the other side.

This is what Sharon’s book does – she invites the reader to come along with her on the journey of pregnancy, childbirth, and new motherhood and doesn’t hold back. She gives readers the truth, her truth, of course, but with universal sentiments and her own hard-earned wisdom.

“It’s not about being a good mother. It’s about being the right mother. For this child. In this moment… seek to be the right mother. Every day. And if you can do that, you can find peace in the chaos of motherhood.” (page 266)

Becoming a mother is not something that happens in an instant when the baby arrives. It’s something that continues to happen, for years, maybe for the rest of our lives as our children grow up, and one day, grow away.