Looking for a heartwarming story about new motherhood? You won’t find it here. The narrator of Elisa Albert’s second novel, Ari, gave birth to Walker a year ago but still hasn’t gotten over the disruption to her life: the constant demands on her time and affection, the decay of her postgraduate thesis, and post-traumatic flashbacks to her caesarean section. Birth wasn’t the blissful, Earth Mother experience she wanted it to be; it was more like butchery: “nightmare blur of newborn stitches tears antibiotic awake constipation tears wound tears awake awake awake limping tears screaming tears screaming shit piss puke tears.” Now don’t get her wrong; she loves Walker: “He’s an awesome baby, a swell little guy. Still a baby, though, of which even the best are oppressive fascist bastard dictator narcissists.”
So even though Ari is reasonably happy and settled in her upstate New York home with her husband Paul (a professor 15 years her senior) and Walker, putting in the occasional shift at the local co-op and sending half-hearted ideas to her advisor, she can’t escape the thought that life isn’t as it should be. That is, until Mina Morris, bassist from a late-eighties girl band, moves to town to sublet her friends’ place while they’re on sabbatical in Rome. Ari had a girl crush on Mina before she ever met her, but when she realizes Mina is nine months’ pregnant, she sees a chance to put her new mommy expertise to good use. She’ll give Mina all the advice and support she wished she’d had. When the need arises, she’ll even breastfeed Mina’s newborn son, Zev. (Albert had a similar experience when her son was failing to thrive from breastfeeding and a friend fed him for her; see her Guardian article.)
There isn’t a whole lot of plot to After Birth. Mina comes into Ari’s life for just two months and then moves on. Ari temporarily indulges her fantasy of a feminist collective where women help each other give birth and raise each other’s children; it is enough of a healing experience that she can conceive of resuming her thesis or even – ha! – having another baby. Still, she acknowledges that “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? You want adventures, you want poetry and art, you want to salon it up over at Gertrude and Alice’s, you’d best leave the messy all-consuming baby stuff to someone else.”
It can be hard to warm to Ari’s sarcastic voice and jarringly short or disorientingly run-on phrases. Albert’s choice to exclude speech marks means that the whole book reads like a sort of fever dream, with past and present and different voices melding. My favorite passage is a monologue by an Oprah-like black nurse who encourages Ari in her early attempts at breastfeeding. There are also frequent flashbacks to Ari’s childhood: Jewish summer camp and the aftermath of her mother Janice’s untimely death. The memories of her mother’s illness (DES treatment leading to breast cancer) and the touches of magic realism as the dead Janice occasionally pops up alongside Ari, usually kvetching about her choices, make this uncannily similar to The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen.
After Birth might not prove to be a classic of ambivalent motherhood, but if you’re in the right mood for it I reckon you’ll find it to be a striking novella.