I, for one, celebrate the influx of recent fiction shining a light on motherhood. From Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers to Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch, these works are getting more introspective and surreal in these waning pandemic days. Taking a different direction, one more rooted in reality and stark simplicity, is Chelsea Bieker’s new short story collection Heartbroke. Bieker focuses on families in and around California’s Central Valley, its past and its present. While the stories are not all centered on motherhood, it is addressed indirectly and directly in myriad ways. We were all children once, shaped by those who raised us, for better or worse.
These themes are in full display in “Fact of Body,” written from the point of view of a disillusioned teenage son looking back on lost opportunities. He traverses a toxic beach with his mother, selling dream catchers yet making a true living off something far darker. Bieker shows us the complexities of a fraught mother-child relationship, the resentfulness tied up with innocence and protective instincts. She builds upon these ideas in “Lyra,” from the perspective of a middle-aged woman who has found family in the brothel she runs and constantly shakes off the legacy of her troubled past. We see these ideas again in “Women and Children First,” when protagonist Lisa snatches an abandoned baby in hopes of a second chance at motherhood. Again, in “Keep Her Down,” which shows us the atypical guardianship of a disabled woman by two ex-wives and the conflicts therein. Over and over these stories show us the various facets of motherhood, women who struggle or triumph or unequivocally fail in its practice. The realities are, if not surreal, hopelessly messy.
Yet the collection is far from one-note and dreary. In several stories, Bieker takes on new voices and lets humor shine through. In “Cowboys and Angels,” perhaps the most unique story in the collection, our speaker obsesses over a one-night stand with a mysterious cowboy and seeks to claim him as her husband, and steamrolls over all barriers in her way. Bieker leans into the hillbilly-esque voice of her character, though as the character claims herself, “there ain’t no hills around here.” In “Say Where She Is,” Bieker catapults us into the twenty-first century by unraveling the tale of a girl gone missing in the age of cyberstalking and internet culture. All of these themes find a place in Heartbroke, anchored by the loneliness and vast space of the Central Valley.
If the collection loses focus at all, it is in its later stories that take us into the past, into raisin farming, internalized bigotry, and tellings of the past that provide context for earlier stories. While these tales, such as “Raisin Man” and “The Bare of Our Chests” show off Bieker’s ability to inhabit other personas, not just wounded mothers and daughters, they lack the impact of the earlier stories, perhaps by showing off familiar characters, or perhaps by coming in late in an already densely packed book. Nevertheless, Heartbroke is a multilayered and oft-surprising take on a forgotten place in California. It serves to take a light away from Hollywood and bigger cities and shine it instead on everyday folk, their traumas large and small.
by Chelsea Bieker
Published on April 05, 2022
Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms