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Fiction Literary

Pure Colour

by (author) Sheila Heti

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Feb 2022
Literary, Psychological, Biographical
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2022
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2023
    List Price

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“True and newly alive.” —Los Angeles Times
“One-of-a-kind. . . . nothing less than vital.” —The Guardian
A new novel about art, love, death and time from the author of Motherhood and How Should A Person Be?
Named a most anticipated book of 2022 by The Globe and Mail
● CBC ● Esquire Entertainment Weekly BuzzFeedPublishers WeeklyVulture ● and many more

Here we are, just living in the first draft of creation, which was made by some great artist, who is now getting ready to tear it apart.
In this first draft, a woman named Mira leaves home for school. There, she meets Annie, whose tremendous power opens Mira’s chest like a portal—to what, she doesn’t know. When Mira is older, her beloved father dies, and she enters the strange and dizzying dimension that true loss opens up.
Pure Colour tells the story of a life, from beginning to end. It is a galaxy of a novel: explosive, celestially bright, huge, and streaked with beauty. It is a contemporary bible, an atlas of feeling, and a shape-shifting epic. Sheila Heti is a philosopher of modern experience, and she has reimagined what a book can hold.

About the author

Sheila Heti is the acclaimed author of the novel How Should a Person Be?, the story collection The Middle Stories, which was published in Germany, France, The Netherlands, the United States, and Spain, and the novel Ticknor, which was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award. Her writing has appeared in various literary anthologies and in several US and Canadian publications, including New York Times Magazine, Esquire, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and Brick. Heti is also the creator of the popular Toronto and New York-based lecture series, Trampoline Hall. She studied playwriting at the National Theatre School in Montreal, and philosophy and art history at the University of Toronto. Sheila Heti lives in Toronto.

Sheila Heti's profile page


  • Winner, Governor General's Literary Awards - Fiction
  • Long-listed, Scotiabank Giller Prize

Excerpt: Pure Colour (by (author) Sheila Heti)


After God created the heavens and the earth, he stood back to contemplate creation, like a painter standing back from the canvas.

This is the moment we are living in—the moment of God standing back. Who knows how long it has been going on for? Since the beginning of time, no doubt. But how long is that? And for how much longer will it continue?

You’d think it would only last a moment, this delay of God standing back, before stepping forward again to finish the canvas, but it appears to be going on forever. But who knows how long or short this world of ours seems from the vanishing point of eternity?

Now the earth is heating up in advance of its destruction by God, who has decided that the first draft of existence contained too many flaws.

Ready to go at creation a second time, hoping to get it more right this time, God appears, splits, and manifests as three critics in the sky: a large bird who critiques from above, a large fish who critiques from the middle, and a large bear who critiques while cradling creation in its arms.

* * *

People born from the bird egg are interested in beauty, order, harmony and meaning. They look at nature from on high, in an abstracted way, and consider the world as if from a distance. These people are like birds soaring—flighty, fragile and strong.

People born from a fish egg appear in a flotation of jelly, and this jelly contains hundreds of thousands of eggs, where the most important thing is not any individual egg, but the condition of the many. For the fish, it’s less any one individual egg that concerns them than that eggs are laid in the best conditions, where the temperature is most right, and the current most gentle, so the majority might survive. For fish, it’s the collective conditions that count. A person hatched from a fish egg is concerned with fairness and justice here on earth: on humanity getting the temperature right for the many. One thousand eggs are the concern of a fish, whereas the person hatched from the egg of a bear clutches one special person close, as close as they possibly can.

A person born from a bear egg is like a child holding on to their very best doll. Bears do not have a pragmatic way of thinking, in which their favourites can be sacrificed for some higher end. They are deeply consumed with their own. Bears claim a few people to love and protect, and feel untroubled by their choice; they are turned towards those they can smell and touch.

People born from these three different eggs will never completely understand each other. They will always think that those born from a different egg have their priorities all wrong. But fish, birds and bears are all equally important in the eye of God, and it wouldn’t be a better world if there were only fish in it, and it wouldn’t be a better world if there were only bears. God needs creation critiqued by all three. But here on earth, it is hard to believe it: fish find the concerns of the birds superficial, while birds are made impatient by the critiques of the fish. Nothing makes a person feel like their life’s work—or their self—is less seen than when it’s being judged by someone from a different egg.

Yet birds should be grateful that someone is making the structural critique, so they don’t have to. And fish should be grateful that someone is making the aesthetic critique, so they can focus on the structural one.

* * *

God is most proud of creation as an aesthetic thing. You have only to look at the exquisite harmony of sky and trees and moon and stars to see what a good job God did, aesthetically. So those born from the bird egg are the most grateful of all. Those born from the fish egg are the most upset, and those born from the bear egg aren’t too happy, either.

Perhaps God shouldn’t conceive of creation as an artwork, the next time around; then he will do a better job with the qualities of fairness and intimacy in our living. But is that even possible—for an artist to shape their impulse into a form which is not, in the end, an art form?

* * *

This particular story concerns a birdlike woman named Mira, who is torn between her love for the mysterious Annie, who seems to Mira a distant fish, and her love for her father, who appears as a warm bear.

* * *

The heart of the artist is a little bit hollow. The bones of the artist are a little bit hollow. The brain of the artist is a little bit hollow. But this allows them to fly. Those who aren’t hatched from the bird egg might wonder why it was birds—who centre their thoughts on their own selves—who were born to give the world its metaphors, pictures and stories. Why should it have been given to the birds?

A bird can learn to walk on the ground like a bear, and they can spend their whole life walking—but they will never be happy this way. While a fish on the shore gasps for breath, desperate to get back to the sea.

* * *

How Mira would have loved to have been born of the bear egg! How she would love to be an ambassador of a simple and enduring love, down here on this earth. Yet whenever she sets her heart on such actions, they are wished for, strived for, and barely achieved. To properly love another one—this is the stumblingest part of her, the most nonsensical part, the part of her that is most scattered and always to blame.

But she shouldn’t feel bad about being a bird, for how beautiful are the flowers in her window—the flowers on her windowsill, over there. How their petals and leaves make each passerby smile, that someone loves beauty and cares. Her flowers make us think of the flowers in the soul of the person who put them there. It is the flowers in the soul of the person who put them there that make us happy and enliven our hearts. The beauty of the flowers is a clue to the beauty of a human heart. They are a keyhole into a human heart.

And a fish’s good act, even the smallest action, effectively done, is a glimpse into a human heart. And a glimpse into one heart is a glimpse into many. And the hopes of the bear are shared by all of humankind. And what opens one heart opens many.

Mira left home. Then she got a job at a lamp store. The lamp store sold Tiffany lamps, and other lamps made of coloured glass. Each lamp was extremely expensive. The least expensive one cost four hundred dollars. This was a month’s salary for her. Every day, before they closed up for the night, Mira had to turn off every single lamp. This took about eleven minutes. Mostly she turned off lamps by pulling on little beaded cords. She had to be careful not to let the cord snap back and hit the bulb or the lamp. She had to pull the cords with a gentle sort of care. It was tedious work. Mira didn’t have the morning shift. That person had to turn on the lamps. Their job was no better than hers.

Across the street there was another lighting store. Where Mira worked, it was just a lamp store, but the other store sold all sorts of fixtures, and also ceiling lights with fans attached—very modern lighting in contrast to their old-fashioned wares. People preferred the store across the street. The owner of Mira’s store had just enough customers to stay in business, since most couples went across the street and spent their money on modernistic white lamps, and off-white lamps made of industrial plastic. Mira’s co-workers felt sorry for themselves, and said those people had no taste. When it was time to close up shop, Mira would see the thin man who worked across the street turning off every single light, one by one. They both had the same nightly task. Mira felt that no one in the world understood her, but she wondered if he did. Yet, embarrassed by their similarity, she avoided eye contact with him.

She felt so alone in those days. Not that she minded. It is only when you get older that everyone makes you feel bad about being alone, or implies that spending time with other people is somehow better, because it proves you to be likeable.

But being unlikeable wasn’t the reason she was alone. She was alone so she could hear herself thinking. She was alone so she could hear herself living.

How did Mira find her job at the lamp store? She must have walked past it and seen a little sign. How did people find jobs back then, back before everyone knew what everyone else wanted? Little paper signs.

How did she find the room she lived in? There was probably a scrap of paper taped up somewhere, or tacked to a corkboard at a local café. The house had two bedrooms on the second floor, and a bathroom that was shared. There was a large apartment on the main floor, which was occupied by a blond-haired gay man, who came home one night all bloodied and beaten. They met by accident on the stairs, and he turned away from her, angry and shaken.

On her floor lived a lonely man about ten years older than she was, who Mira only saw twice. He was silent and shy. In their bathroom was a dirty tub, so she never took a bath, and she rarely showered. Because the man prepared his dinner in the kitchen, she bought a hot plate for her room.

Attached to her bedroom was a draughty porch with wood-slat walls and subtly distorted windows, set into all three sides. It would have been a pretty room to sit in, if the weather had been nice. But it was fall when Mira moved in, and she was gone by early spring. She kept all the books she owned on a shelf in that freezing little room. When it was time to move out, she opened the door to collect her books and found they had all moulted and their pages had gone wavy with the damp, deep cold of the winter.

Mira entered school. She was accepted into the American Academy of American Critics, at one of its international satellite schools. It wasn’t so easy to get in. Everyone who wanted to be a critic applied. There were only a few spots open each year, so everyone who was accepted immediately had something to brag about. Just getting in placed a certain stamp on your personality and mind. It meant you were a cut above the rest.

The school had a large room with tables, a sort of tetrahedron-shaped room with cheap chairs made of industrial plastic, and shiny, smoke-stained walls. This was where the students hung out. There was a tiny window through which they could buy croissants and tea, and the people who worked behind the wall were rarely, if ever, seen.

In the large room, students stood on desks, declaiming. They made their pronouncements and laughed out loud, and it was the only place in the whole building where they didn’t feel they were performing for their professors. It was the only place they felt free. Their vanity was just bursting at the seams! They felt it was important to hone their insights. They knew they had to develop a style of writing and thinking that could survive down through the ages, and at the same time penetrate their own generation so incisively. That was what they had entered school for—they, the elected. They believed the future would be set in the moulds that they had made. It was important to know what you thought of things—what you believed the world to be, and what you thought it should be.

* * *

They just didn’t consider the fact that one day they would be walking around with phones in the future, out of which people who had far more charisma than they did would let flow an endless stream of images and words. They just had no idea that the world would become so big, or the competition so stiff.

They ate croissants and drank tisane. They smoked pot and went to class high. They had few lessons, and the ones that were offered were worthless and out of date.

Every morning, they had to practice Tai Chi in the school basement. The sessions were led by a teacher in his mid-fifties who was thin and brisk. The implication was that if they practiced Tai Chi every morning for the rest of their lives, they would turn out as energetic and capable as he. Everyone went except Matty, who didn’t think that a critic needed to know Tai Chi. The very fact of the classes enraged him! He thought they should be sleeping in. He hadn’t been told, upon acceptance, that performing Tai Chi at eight in the morning was the obligation of every student. If he had known, he wouldn’t have applied. It was up to him if he wanted to move his body or not, and it was nobody’s business but his own. Although his classmates agreed with him, they all went to Tai Chi anyway.

Editorial Reviews


“An explicitly mystical book about the creation of art and the creation of the universe. . . . Heti’s books aim to be vessels for the transformation of reader and writer.” —Parul Sehgal, The New Yorker
“In her latest novel, Heti moves the questions of art and existence . . . away from the cafés and apartments of Toronto to a more liminal space where God is still assessing his ‘first draft,’ where time is elastic and where people can turn into leaves and then back into humans. She is, needless to say, one of the few writers who can pull it all off.” The Globe and Mail

“This one-of-a-kind novel . . . feels nothing less than vital.” —Anthony Cummins, The Guardian

“Heti has long been a devastating writer about sexual magnetism, her prose as sensitive as the tip of a conductor’s baton. . . . Like Iris Murdoch’s novels, Heti’s are philosophically intense, although Heti’s work is pared down where Murdoch’s was Rabelaisian. Heti owns a sharp ax. In Pure Colour the wood chips that fall are as interesting as the sculpture that gets made.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“True and newly alive. . . . It made me reconsider what the particular container of the novel might hold inside of it. . . . That is Heti’s genius.” Los Angeles Times

“Earnest, funny and sweet. . . . Although the book is full of regret for all that will be lost, there is solace. . . . If I were not a reviewer but a friend, I would press this book into your hand, and say, 'It’s a bit mad, but I think you will like it.'” —Anne Enright, The Guardian

“Phenomenal. . . . If Heti’s earlier novels were preoccupied with the differences between people and questions of how to live better, happier, this book embraces the blissful and melancholy inevitability of being the type of person you are, and of allowing life to shape you in ways you can’t control or predict.” —Alexandra Kleeman, The New York Times
“By far the best writing Ms. Heti has ever done. . . . Forthright, attentive, unembarrassed, radiant with wonder, serious yet feather-light—and, to me, courageous in [its] willingness to plunge so wholeheartedly into the unknowable.” The Wall Street Journal
“It’s thrilling to see Heti turn her skeptical eye on her own previous skepticism, considering beauty not as a source of embarrassment but as something to be venerated. . . . So much depends upon distance, and Heti has found the right amount in Pure Colour.” The Boston Globe
“Would it be déclassé to say this funny and moving novel, about a grieving daughter clinging to beauty to dull or even transcend the pain of loss, is both precious and practical, that it could help you? Maybe so but—who cares? . . . . The reward [of Pure Colour] is that you could actually emerge feeling better.” Vulture

“Wise and silly, moving and inscrutable . . . Pure Colour aims to refresh readers’ perceptions of the world as we see it.” —Lily Meyer, NPR
“A cross-pollination of a parable, an allegory and a novel. . . . [recalling] The Unbearable Lightness of Being. . . . Heti shines when dealing with bumbling, lustful hope, that mystical ignition of the body, mind and spirit in the throes of a sexual or romantic encounter.” The Washington Post
“Heti continues to pose existential questions. . . . [with] a penchant for provocation.” Financial Times
“Heti is an oracular figure in contemporary fiction and Pure Colour, her tenth book, is perhaps her most spiritually engaged work yet. . . . Heti flits through everything we’ve come to expect from her novels: thoughts on creation, death, parenting, friendship, and every little thing in between. In short, the ineffable.” —Kevin Lozano, Vulture
“A honed gem, a surreal bildungsroman . . . With its philosophical meditations, poetic vignettes and absurdist comedy, it is, in common with all of Heti’s books, a bracing reminder that the novel is the literary form where a writer is free to do anything.” i (UK)
“Heti at her . . . most risk-taking. . . . The best parts of Pure Colour read like Samuel Beckett has reimagined parts of the Old Testament. . . . Heti wants to capture not just the whole world but the whole universe, from the mysteries of dark matter to the torment of walking with a wet sock, and various shades of human heartache in between.” The New Statesman

“Unabashedly metaphysical and completely outlandish. . . . Heti’s tone is more somber and searching than it has ever been, as she turns over and over fundamental questions of life and death, creation and extinction, with her trademark penchant for paradox. . . . A gloriously implausible book.” The Atlantic

“Luminous. . . . At the same time that she is contending with large, abstract questions, Heti is a master of the tiniest, most granular detail. Her prose can be both sweeping and particular. On one page, Mira and her father think of time as a billion-year expanse; on another, she and Annie buy a box of chocolates. The book is as exquisitely crafted as those sweets must have been. Heti’s latest is that rarest of novels—as alien as a moon rock and every bit as wondrous.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“The narrative of Pure Colour seems to radiate from present, future, and past all at once. . . . [Pure Colour] joins Heti’s other novels as a work that attempts to explore the idea that one’s soul is not ultimately one’s own, that it is an expression of other essences, voices, or perhaps of time itself.” The Yale Review
“With each book, [Heti’s] scope seems to widen, and Pure Colour ushers the reader further from roman à clef or autobiography and closer to a kind of speculative philosophy or myth. . . . Heti has a special talent for making the mundane feel magical—this is key to the beguiling strangeness of her texts.” The Los Angeles Review of Books
“An impressionistic swath of a book. . . . In its kaleidoscopic shifts from one perspective to another and from one plane of existence to another . . . what sticks with the reader are small, pungent and precise deployments of language and experience.” Santa Fe Reporter
“Dynamic and wondrous. . . . Heti deliberately [steps] away from many of the traditional structures and frameworks of fiction in order to make room for the exploration of some of life’s most intense and ineffable experiences—the kind of experiences we all share but still find so difficult to put into words—like grieving or falling in love.” Oprah Daily
“Her prose—freewheeling, elliptical, a tangle of jokiness and jeopardy—seems to capture the puzzle of proportionality: how seriously should we take this one life we have, and how can we hope to balance our opposing urges towards levity and gravity? . . . . This strange, affecting novel . . . has much to say about the feelings that are with us throughout our lives, waiting for their moment to strike.” The Spectator

“Beguiling, funny, and wise. . . . Within a taut two hundred pages, Heti weaves together philosophical discussions about death, the soul, love and art . . . invit[ing] as many interpretations as an abstract painting.” Prospect (UK)

Pure Colour cleaves away any perceived notion of what [Heti] will write next—it is philosophically intense, poetic, deftly capturing an impressionistic emotional reality we all experience differently.” AnOther Magazine

Pure Colour is not just a novel, it’s a creation myth, a fairy tale, a story about making art and living on this planet. A story about death and the irresistible inner stirrings that bring us back to life. Beautiful and impossible to put down. Sheila Heti is a genius.’ —Anvi Doshi, 2020 Booker Finalist with Burnt Sugar

“It isn’t often that a novel dares to rethink the order of the universe we live in, yet in Pure Colour, Sheila Heti aims for just that. Making new sense of our cracked world through a vulnerable meditation on love and art that feels both personal and cosmic, this is a book that takes good care of its reader, and heals.” —Livia Franchini, author of Shelf Life

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