The babyfood aisle at a Best Price supermarket. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Prime Images
Show Hide image

The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder