If you have ever been the primary parent of a small child, reading Rachel Yoder’s debut novel, “Nightbitch,” may feel as if the author stuck her hand into your brain and rummaged around. Yoder has a powerful understanding of the alienation that can set in for stay-at-home mothers and others.

The main character christens herself “Nightbitch” after she begins noticing physical changes in her body. Are her canines sharper? Why is she hairier? That lump at the base of her spine — is it a tail? Do these signs prove that she’s not like the other mommies at the various enrichment classes, Book Babies, Tyke Hyke, Gymnastic Jam and more?

Before she gave birth and made the fraught but financially necessary decision to provide full-time parenting, Nightbitch was an artist and administrator at an arts foundation. The before-and-after gap is never so apparent as when she meets two friends from grad school who have made different choices. They make her realize that she has buried her former self, “the talented and plucky young woman with big ideas and an unusual point of view.”

Meanwhile, Nightbitch grows ever more feral, although Yoder keeps the transformation ambiguous. Readers won’t be sure which changes stick around and which only show up after dark, although we do see Nightbitch involving her toddler in some of her new activities. A fussy sleeper, her son finally settles down when she allows him to use a kennel for his naps. She also gives him small tastes of raw meat. That’s just one example of the surprising, and surprisingly gory, scenes in this novel. They’re not gratuitous, but they’re also not genteel.

Neither is Nightbitch. She’s raw and complicated and angry. She tells her friends from art school that she’s “working on” something “about the wildness of motherhood,” which isn’t exactly a lie. Nightbitch wants to “underscore the brutality of motherhood, how a child’s first act is violence against the woman who created it. Yet the mother loves the child with the most powerful love known in this universe.”

Yoder concocts a small and humorous conceit to connect Nightbitch’s present with motherhood’s long history. At some point, the protagonist starts to read a book called “A Field Guide to Magical Women,” by one Wanda White, a professor at the University of Sacramento. White claims to have spent years studying and doing field work about mythical female creatures she encounters “in the wild,” including a clan “drawn to and focused on all things related to her career, success, financial earning, and power” – and the mysterious “WereMothers of Siberia,” who procreate individually, spontaneously and frequently.

Not only are these imaginary tribes of women wittily conceived, but they also remind us of motherhood’s shared experiences: the changing bodies, disrupted sleep schedules and tiny potentates demanding macaroni again and again.

As Nightbitch disrupts the equilibrium of her household, allowing her long-suppressed fury to surface, something else happens: She rediscovers her creativity. The scene of her art opening is unforgettable. So is Nightbitch. No one should take her for granted.

Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”


By Rachel Yoder


256 pp. $26