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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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle