Journalist Sophie Heawood has written columns about life as a single mother and her memoir, The Hungover Games, provides the backstory. It’s a funny, acerbic, sometimes despairing and brutally candid account of accidental pregnancy, single motherhood and how what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, wittier and more resourceful. You can’t go under when there’s a little human at stake.
At 34, Heawood was working as a celebrity interviewer in Hollywood, living at the seedier end of Sunset Strip (she vividly describes it as full of “ironed smiles and painted rage”). Believing her PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) rendered her near infertile, she had unprotected sex during a hook-up with a musician semi-boyfriend, whose identity she conceals. The resulting pregnancy sucked her out of her bohemian, stardust-sprinkled existence and back to east London and reality, eventually settling in “Piss Alley”, where late-night revellers urinated against the houses.
As a result of her day job, stars occasionally float through the pages (Jodie Foster comes out to Heawood long before she goes public). However, this is a book about the author’s emotional trajectory. Her shock at being pregnant: “What I longed for was a book called What To Expect When You Weren’t Fucking Expecting To Be Expecting.” The less than elated reaction of the musician to the baby news: “I didn’t know if we were starting a family or starting a war.” The pain of going through pregnancy alone: “The loneliness of the long-distance runner has nothing on the loneliness of the single person in the antenatal class.” The dawning realisation that single parenthood beckoned: “I began to feel what it is to sit outside the narrative, trying to fit yourself into a fairytale with some of the pages missing.”
While the writing is sometimes bruised, Heawood never stops being dry and funny. Once her daughter is born (“Suddenly I am someone’s mother, oh God, is this love?”), she attempts to get her life going again, dealing with monetary/career pressures, new romantic quandaries (“Should you breastfeed on a first date?”) and the smug humble-bragging parents (“the Hallouminati”) of her generation. Meanwhile, the musician asks for a DNA test and, although he pays child maintenance, he gradually stops contact. While her friends think he’s a bastard, Heawood clings to the one indisputable silver lining: “He had given me my best ever present… If I thought about what my life would have been without her – my diminutive partner in crime, and in beauty, and in fart jokes – I almost couldn’t breathe again.”
The book’s title refers to the games Heawood would play with her daughter when she was incapacitated from the night before. But maybe there’s another kind of “hangover” going on here: that of the excruciating process of dragging your previous self into a new way of being. In some ways, this memoir is as much about the author growing up, and growing as a person, as it is about her daughter. Heawood not only realises her new responsibilities, she embraces and relishes them: “I want to be the safe place my daughter turns to at night and wakes up to in the morning.” She isn’t the first to find out that parenthood isn’t always a Richard Curtis movie, but her unvarnished take on doing it alone is a must-read for anyone out there, floundering, scared they’re doing it wrong. The writing is great in The Hungover Games, but the humour and honesty are even better.
• The Hungover Games by Sophie Heawood is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15