The early days of motherhood are a time of transformative elation and exhaustion, when body and soul have been claimed by a frighteningly vulnerable baby-overlord. You really need to talk to someone, even if that someone is the clerk at a drive-through Dunkin’ Donuts. While the Mommy industry advertises countless ways of connecting — Facebook feeds full of baby pictures, discussion threads about sippy cups — it can also make a new mother feel even more alienated.
This is the hyper-connected, hyper-isolated exile faced by Ari, the narrator in Elisa Albert’s “After Birth,” a novel that captures our time with bracing, propulsive energy and brilliant honesty.
Ari is a creature of scalding fury, trying to claw her way out of the yellow-wallpapered trap of modern motherhood. She lives in Upstate New York with her husband and 1-year-old son. While recovering from a traumatic and unnecessary Caesarean section, she pretends to work on her women’s studies dissertation and surfs the Internet for tales of human misery. Long depressed, raging between nursing sessions and naps, she feels “surprised and frustrated that even the best man on earth turns out not to cure loneliness. Bored to tears by my own in-depth examination of a subject I once adored. Worn down by the drudgery and isolation of caring for a tiny child.”
Without any female guidance save the ghost of her vicious, long-dead mother, Ari feels lied to and abandoned in the isolating wilderness. When she meets a new transplant to her college town, a pregnant poet named Mina, Ari blossoms at the possibility of communion with a like-minded mother-in-arms. But unfortunately, Ari’s need for positive female relationships is matched by her lifelong compulsion to destroy them. She tells us early on that she has “zero friends,” and the book’s running history of girlfriends loved and lost explains why: Ari is full of angry, unarticulated need, forever idealizing women she imagines lead more authentic lives while hating actual women. Her most romantic memories are of the radical, rule-breaking feminists of her youth, but even these women let her down: They are unable to save her from herself, and she responds by tearing them apart again and again.
Ari’s analysis of other girls and women are the sharpest, most cringe-inducing passages of the novel. She takes aim with precision and deadly intent (she is, after all, getting her PhD in “Algorithms of Girl” ). There is no misunderstanding why Ari cannot maintain deep female friendships when one reads her eviscerating summation of a faculty party: “Cat’s hair is dyed and shellacked a deep, awful magenta; Betsy’s panty lines have panty lines. In the kitchen the French-theory [woman] with the Kabuki face teeters on idiotic spike-heel contraptions resembling staplers. Someone should offer her bunions a glass of wine.”
By immersing us in Ari’s bottomless need and pain, Albert creates a deeply resonant and empathetic reading experience, even as Ari’s toxicity dares us to care about her. The novel, with its claustrophobic focus on the corrosive workings of Ari’s mind, is exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure. Albert is virtuosic in capturing and maintaining barely concealed fury. In its unremitting coarseness and ferocity, her language takes the sentimental platitudes that all mothers are fed (lies!) and spits them back with purifying fury.
There is one major exception: When Ari speaks to her baby, she knows how to play the nurturing earth mother she so desperately wants to be and never knew herself. The baby, a son she has to remind herself to call by name, becomes the only life Ari can care about, and even then it is with a primal protectiveness that reveals a struggle between love and insanity. She compulsively insists, “We’re happy. We’re blessed. We are we are we are we are” — unconvincing mantras designed to keep her madness from her beloved child.
Ari’s ideal of motherhood is a gentle, nurturing feminist utopia, one she passionately espouses and unsteadily embodies through all the modern hippie-mom tropes. But despite her efforts, she remains a raging wolf in free-trade clothing, spitting bitter truths about a society that undervalues nurturing and mothers: “Two hundred years ago — hell, one hundred years ago . . . you’d share childcare with a raft of women. They’d help you, keep you company, show you how. Then you’d do the same. Not just people to share in the work of raising children, but people to share in the loving of children.”
That the world is misogynistic and unjust for women is a given in “After Birth,” but this is a feminist novel uniquely uninterested in a male figure of oppression. The real threat that “After Birth” describes so viscerally is the destruction of the bonds between women. Those connections are essential to who we are and who we will become, and their absence leaves a vast chasm.
Jessica Roake is a writer in Silver Spring, Md.
By Elisa Albert
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 196 pp. $23