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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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.