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21 May 2015

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.

By Alice O'keeffe

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.

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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.