Book review: After Birth by Elisa Albert

I love this book. Get it. Read it. Now.

“After Birth” by Elisa Albert tells the story of three months in one woman’s life around a year after giving birth who befriends a former “almost” rock star/poet who is about to give birth. The narrator says of the poet: “I’m a little obsessed with her, by which I mean a lot, which I guess is what obsessed means.”

In that sentence, Albert achieves the creation of a distinctive character in her narrator: a sharp sense of humor, somewhat confessional, somewhat striving for clarity, while also somewhat muddled. Ari, the narrator, may not always be a sympathetic character (one of the first things she does is call the upstate city she lives – a fictional town called Utrecht, but an easily readable blend of Albany, Troy, Schenectady — a “shitbox”), but her language is so seductive that it can charm the reader, even in her most negative moments.

After all, Ari seems to be suffering from a kind of post-partum depression, a severe disorientation in which she feels betrayed by a world that didn’t prepare her for life after having a child, she’s lost interest in completing her doctorate in women’s studies, she feels isolated in the aforementioned “shitbox” town, and all of it has been exacerbated by having undergone a c-section operation.

If that weren’t enough, there is also that special kind of existential dread a parent faces by bringing a new life into the world: “I’m not going to pretend my kid is special, like other kids who starve and freeze and get raped and beaten and have to work in factories and get cancer from the fumes, too bad, so sad, but my kid is going to be warm and organic and toxin-free and safe and have everything he wants when he wants it and go to a good college and all is right with the world! Fuck that myopic bullshit. He’s going to suffer. He’s going to get mauled by some force I can’t pretend I can predict. We all live in the same fucked-up world.”

The turns in those few sentences — hard-edged realism to liberal-progressive hopes to a futile despair — can be read as openings into the kind of intellectual pathways a new mother faces. Much deeper (and darker) than the figure of a mother as a caregiver, caretaker, and nurturing figure, Ari delineates the strange subject-position having a child puts her in, a kind of territory of loneliness that her husband can never truly access, and one in which she can barely find any women who share her thoughts and ideas.

Albert writes of her ongoing failure to connect with others: “I’m telling you, I tried. I’d be friends with Hitler if he wanted to have a chill playdate. You have to find people, people with babies, and you might not technically like these people, but you’ll be so grateful for the shorthand, any blessed shorthand, that it won’t seem to matter. But it will matter, because you’ll be lonely, and come to feel terrifically fragmented, and death might come to seem like a relief. A baby opens you up, is the problem. … There’s before and there’s after. To live in your body before is one thing. To live in your body after is another.”

I read most of this book in one sitting. Albert has such a command of language and character that she pulls you along, wondering how Ari could possibly get herself into a better head-space when she is so good at describing the complex awfulness of her current situation.

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