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Unutterable misgivings of motherhood


Elisa Albert

Elisa Albert

Elisa Albert

It was only a matter of time before the swell of 'mummy lit' - with its school runs, Boden catalogue dresses and stench of calm maternal contentment - hit the skids. It was only a matter of time, too, before the second wave of women would arrive, this time taking aim at that 'perfect mother' myth. Writers like Ayelet Waldman, Jennifer Senior and Jowita Bydlowska have articulated the unpalatable truth; that motherhood isn't unlike running a rather boring non-profit organisation, and making a ham-fisted job of it is easier than one might think.

The 'bad' mother doesn't obsess over nap-time, bottle versus breast or milestones. Rather, she offers a relatable impression of parenting. Her kind has also shown up in fiction too - often to brilliant and striking effect - most notably in Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. Joining the ranks is Elisa Albert, who has managed to take the temperature of the culture of modern motherhood to impressive effect in her debut.

A year into her journey into motherhood, our anti-hero, Ari, finds herself very much at sea. All she has done, she admits, is get used to her new world order. She loves her child, Walker, naturally, but she's not averse to thinking of him as a 'tiny moron' either. Exiled from her childless friends, suffering from a stone-cold case of post-natal depression and without a mother to lean on in time of need, Ari finally finds a comrade in the form of the neighbourhood newcomer Mina. A former musician in the Riot Grrrl vein, Mina is 'half-silvered haired', pregnant, and enviably assured.

"Clearly I am not as lithe as before I fabricated and surgically evacuated a new human being," notes Ari. Her account is littered with casual remarks about how ambiguous she finds the task of motherhood; she refers to her baby's first birthday as the 'anniversary of the great failure' (after a complicated C-section). They amount in their own way to a thousand paper cuts; darkly funny but still somehow furious. The reader, presumably is to oscillate between empathy and flat-out indifference for Ari. Because of this, After Birth hits the same tonal notes as the mumblecore films of Nicole Holofcener and Jill Soloway.

There is something coolly arch, snarky even, about Albert's writing, leaving little wriggle-room for warmth or charm in her narrative. Surely this is by design rather than accident, as it helps to hammer home Ari's sense of claustrophobia and discontent. Taking the edge off this unflinching account is the female friendship between both characters. Ari's retelling of her mother's death, vivid though it is, seems curiously detached, too: "Anticlimactic, when it finally happened," she says. "I stayed up until dawn, but I couldn't have told you why." And so it goes. It doesn't take long for Ari's tale of helplessness to veer into solipsism and bitterness.

With shades of light and dark, After Birth is the unutterable misgivings of new motherhood writ large. It's a title that should bring much comfort to anyone who looked at their screaming child and wanted to run down the street at full pelt. If you're one of the aforementioned Boden set, or ever casually remarked without irony how motherhood completely changes you but, like, in a good way, perhaps this is one book to skip.


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Indo Review