It seems that, finally, the things that happen to women are being afforded more space in the world. From Motherhood by Sheila Heti to The Let Down on Netlflix, the challenges that women face are being placed centre stage and given the time and consideration they always deserved. Rushing into this space comes The Heart Beats in Secret by Katie Munnik. Although it was pitched to me as ‘a book about motherhood,’ there isn’t much actual mothering happening here. Instead, you see the choices and challenges three women face in light of impending motherhood, or in the shadow of their own matriarchs. It’s a gorgeously written book that is all-encompassing in its creation of people and places.
This book had an explosive start in life, winning the Borough Press competition which came with a publishing deal and literary representation. Only a few pages in, it’s easy to see why. There’s something so lilting and lyrical about Munnik’s prose I felt like I was shrouded in a delicious mist whenever I read it, the rumbling traffic at the end of my street becoming the hum of the sea. It’s rare to find a book that so totally immerses you in a time and place, and she manages to do it over three generations.
In the ‘present’ we have Pidge, a young woman who has gone to Scotland after finding out she’s been left her grandmother’s house in her will. At the other end of history is Jane, her grandmother, struggling with being a young wife during the second world war. Sandwiching them together is Felicity, her mother, a nurse who ends up in a community camp for expectant mothers in Quebec when she finds herself pregnant and alone.
What’s wonderful about this book is that it completely centralises the lives and problems of three women. The men are often absent, or implied, but rarely impact much on the narrative. Extremely significant events like birth and all its possible complications are given time for the reader to engage with, rather than being skipped over as a quick plot point. It’s not gory, but it doesn’t shy away from the difficult things that can come from having a female body.
For me, the most resonant character was Pidge, the young character who is searching through the detritus of an old house (accompanied by a delightfully obnoxious goose) in order to make sense of the women that came before her. While she doesn’t seem to get as much actual ‘story,’ I found the descriptions of her being in that house more stirring because she was discovering it anew, and so it felt more evocative. Of course one of the reasons this works is because it’s layered between the story of her grandmother who lived in the same house many years before. I like how there isn’t a straight switch between the stories. Also, there isn’t a direct chronological shift from ‘beginning’ to ‘end’ in each of the threads. The timelines weave in and out of each other, lingering wherever there is something to be discovered or explored in more detail. It feels as if the story is moving like a natural breath, exhaling to leave space for those characters who need it at a certain point rather than rigidly cutting them off after a certain amount of pages.
This also means the pace of it shifts too. Some parts are imbued with an imminent disaster about to arrive into one of their lives, while the another feels more like a walk through daily life. I didn’t mind this, it just meant that the pace of the storytelling fitted with what was happening to the characters. The sections made up of letters did feel a bit stilted, although by that time you are so invested in the story that you feel like you’re looking over Pidge’s shoulder, scanning through the crumpled pages with her, desperate to find out the things that have been kept from you.
After putting the book down, I found myself haunted by each of the characters. They are each alone in their own way, while also tethered to each other. Because they are so artfully rendered, I found the difficult moments in their life starkly touching, lifting up memories I’d buried and echoing through the experiences of women throughout history. It’s a soothing read which belies the intricacy behind the storytelling. A truly immersive book.
After reading, I talked to Katie Munnik. She gave me some lovely insights into the writing of the book and some great advice for writers:
1. Why did you choose the months leading up to a birth and the birth itself as a focus rather than mothering/childhood?
I was interested in pregnancy’s internal processes of preparation. It is a hiddenness that becomes unignorably public. Different women experience that journey in different ways, and I wanted to explore how character is shaped and revealed in those months.
2. How did you arrive at the particular place and time period for each character?
The book started when I saw a road sign for Birthwood outside of Edinburgh, and I was intrigued by the name. The rest of the car journey, I played with idea of that name and what it might conjure. The three women jostled for space and I decided to give them each a voice in the story. The question of wartime babies – and who they grew up to be – has always interested me.
3. Did you need to go to the place you write about in order to describe it so beautifully?
The places in my book are places I know well. I lived on the east coast of Scotland on and off for six years, and I’m originally from Ottawa, spending my summers on the Quebec side of the river, mucking about with canoes and lakes and campfires. You might say that the geography of this story is autobiographical.
4. How did you find the process of publishing your book?
I was lucky to be published by The Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins. With a team of four, it feels like a small press, but has the large publisher weight behind it. I really enjoyed the editing process – I felt like my work was always in good hands – though I did find a bit mystifying. As a debut novelist, it can be difficult to know what to expect and even what questions to ask. As a reader, you think you know a bit about the publishing world, but seeing it from the other side, it’s amazing how any people are involved. Publishing really is a fabulous team game.
5. What is the one most important thing you have learnt in your writing that you would want to pass on to other writers?
If you want to have written it, you need to write it. Waiting to feel like it won’t get the pages filled. You need to sit down. You won’t feel ready. But you never need to be ready to write a whole book. You write one page at a time, one small scene, one sentence. Write that, and after that, the next one.
Katie Munnik is a Canadian writer and storyteller living in Cardiff. Represented by Cathryn Summerhayes at Curtis Brown, she was a recent recipient of a Literature Wales Writer’s Bursary and a graduate of the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, Canada.
You can find out more about her on her website.
Thanks to Katie for her thoughts and advice, and thanks for reading. Please share your thoughts @sarahtinsleyuk