The babyfood aisle at a Best Price supermarket. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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After Birth reveals the black comedy of motherhood

This is the dark, nightmarish little voice inside every mother, the one we spend our lives trying to shut up.

After Birth
Elisa Albert
Chatto & Windus, 196pp, £16.99

My goodness, this is an angry howl of a book. “The buildings are amazing in this shitbox town,” it begins, and that is as positive as it gets. About anything. The narrator, Ari, had a baby a year ago and she hasn’t been loving it: “a nightmare blur of newborn stitches tears antibiotics awake constipation tears wound tears awake awake awake limping tears screaming tears screaming shit piss puke tears”. She wanders lonely as a small, dark cloud around the aforementioned shitbox town (Utrecht, New York), drinking crappy Starbucks coffees, trying to get her baby to sleep, fending off desperation and troubling memories of her difficult mother, who died when she was a child.

Ari is learning how to be a parent and she is doing so in a vacuum. She has no mother or sister to guide her. Her father is preoccupied with his unsympathetic new wife. Her friends are busy: those without children of their own are either too envious or too uninterested to offer her any support. Her husband, Paul, is her rock but he is not enough to save her from loneliness. She tries a local baby group but all the other mothers are, apparently, “anal shrews” who spend their time forcing formula down their babies’ throats and arguing about the best brand of sippy cup. It’s “a chore, trying to talk to these women”.

Hope appears in the form of the pregnant Mina Morris, a poet and former riot grrrl musician, who moves into a neighbouring house. She is as “fucked up” and isolated as Ari and, after she has her baby, the pair discover the power of true sisterhood. They hang out, wet-nurse one another’s babies, listen to music. This, she realises, is how it should be done. “I could have ten children like this, I say, meaning together, as a team.”

At its best, After Birth is very funny. Ari is like the dark, nightmarish little voice inside every mother, the one we spend our lives trying to shut up. I’d like to say that I don’t recognise her but I would be lying. On her darling son, for example: “He’s an awesome baby, a swell little guy. Still a baby, though, of which even the best are oppressive fascist bastard dictator narcissists.” And, “Sometimes I’m with the baby and I think: you’re my heart and my soul, and I would die for you. Other times I think: tiny moron, leave me the fuck alone . . .” There is an omertà about these sentiments and for our children that may be a good thing. Nevertheless, seeing them in print gives the same icky pleasure as lancing a boil.

It’s remarkable that this still counts as new territory for fiction. And it matters: we all grew up with books, films and TV dramas in which the portrayal of childbirth was not much more sophisticated than a clenched lip, a ladylike trace of sweat on the brow . . . and then a cut to a smiling, perfectly coiffed woman in bed, clutching a bundle. Little wonder that a common theme in baby group conversations is: why did nobody tell me it would be like this?

The problem may have been that, as Ari says, “The work of childbearing, done fully, done consciously, is all-consuming. So who’s gonna write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it?” But it can’t be that simple, because the rising generation of female writers is finding a way. Zadie Smith wove some of her experience into NW (her nannies got a prominent mention in the ­acknowledgments). And in the past couple of years, critically acclaimed books by Jenny Offill (Dept of Speculation) and Miranda July (The First Bad Man) have put the experience of becoming a mother, in all its messy complexity, at the heart of the narrative.

In its focus on post-natal depression, After Birth is more self-consciously taboo-busting than either of the above. And that, unfortunately, is where it falls down. There is a sense that Albert set out to “push the boundaries” at the expense of her central character. Ari is too harsh and embittered. Once the Mina storyline peters out, her narrative degenerates into a list of things that are wrong with the world and people who have let her down. Like many depressed people, she spends a lot of time telling herself that life has been designed specifically to give her the roughest possible ride and it is an attitude that is almost as tiring to read about as it is to be around. 

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge