Review: After Birth, by Elisa Albert

61Koe5UF6BL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: February 2015

>>Finally got around to it: April 2015

Why couldn’t I just enjoy it? Why couldn’t I be calm and at peace and fulfilled and engorged and certain and calm? Why did lack of sleep make me feel like I was going to die? And why then couldn’t I simply hand the baby over to someone else and take a nap? And why, when he cried, when I had nursed and burped and hugged and kissed and changed and nursed and burped and changed again, when he kept crying, when the crying went on and he wouldn’t sleep and the days unwound sunrise to sunset, when I hadn’t eaten or changed clothes or bathed, when I had no one to talk to, no one to sit with, did I feel like putting him safely down in his crib and walking out into the park and sitting on a bench without my coat on until I died? Why so numb, so incapable, so enraged, so broken?

It’s in your blood, my mother said, and laughed.

Rest for a while, Paul would say.

No, there would be no rest for me. There was no rest to be had. There was no escaping the brutal enormity of it: I had had a baby. I had been cut in half for no good reason, and no number of dissolving stitches was ever going to make me whole again. The hysterical imperative was to Feed Him from Myself continuously, no compromise. I had to be vigilant. Omnipresent. I had fallen victim to a commonplace violence, and now I had this baby and there was too much at stake. I had failed him out of the gate. Deprived him the vital, epic journey through the birth canal, my poor doped-up kitten. Poor helpless boy.

***

A year ago, Ariella—Ari—gave birth by way of caesarean section to a beautiful baby boy named Walker. Ever since she’s been struggling to understand her new self, to come to terms with the ways in which her world, her reality, has been irrevocably altered.

Ari is not alone on this largely unguided journey, but her support base is limited. She and her husband Paul (fifteen years her senior—he an associate professor, she a grad student when they first met) share a home in Utrecht, New York. Paul is an all-around good guy; he loves his wife and new son and is eager to be the best parent he can be. Then there are Crisp and Jerry, a neighbourhood couple Ari relies upon for emotional support, especially immediately following Walker’s birth.

Beyond Paul, Crisp, and Jerry, however, Ari’s world is limited. Her mother died young from cancer, when Ari was in seventh grade, and her relationship with her father is not all that great. Additionally, while we meet many of Ari’s “friends” and acquaintances throughout, as she narrates in non-linear fashion her upbringing and adolescence, she is not one to regularly court, or for that matter maintain friendships. As a matter of fact, she’s openly hostile and mistrusting of most women.

Enter Mina Morris. Mina is a poet and former rock star—bassist for the late-’80s Oregon girl band the Misogynists. One of those bands that never made it beyond small clubs and dive bars yet managed somehow to cultivate a legacy of their very own amongst a small but intensely devoted fan base. At the novel’s outset, Mina is living in Crisp and Jerry’s house while they are away. She’s alone and about ready to burst with a child of her own.

But Mina isn’t just another woman. For Ari, Mina is something of a kindred spirit—someone in whom she sees her own personality (abrasive, quick to judge, even quicker to cut) reflected, even accentuated; with whom she can be vulnerable—to a degree. Ari tests the waters a bit and finds Mina at first cool and disinterested. It’s only after Mina gives birth that she begins to open up to Ari, and the two of them quickly bond over the surreality of their changed worlds and the lives now wholly dependent upon them.

In After Birth, author Elisa Albert employs form first and foremost as a function of emotion. Ari is, in the wake of childbirth, disconnected from the world around her. As her mind ricochets from one extreme to another, she simultaneously appears to embrace and detest motherhood. This fractured mindset is further illustrated by the ways in which the narrative leaps back and forth in time, revealing as necessary the origins of Ari via the lived experiences of both her mother (the “bitch from hell”) and her grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor with a litany of demons of her very own.

The extremes in which Ari vacillates are unsettling for the reader. We’re never comfortable, situated in one place, nor I suspect are we ever meant to be. Albert takes this a step further in the exploitation of italics in place of dialogue tags. This is something I’ve expressed having difficulty with in the past, feeling as if a lack of dialogue tags (quotation marks, specifically) hampers my ability to truly lose myself in a narrative. In many cases, I feel a lack of quotation marks removes some element of personality from a narrative, turning an otherwise engaging work of fiction into something that feels more academic or detached. This was my experience with After Birth, though I absolutely see the merits of said decision—because Ari is detached, removed from herself. Additionally, the use of italics to represent both emphasis and speech helps to blur the line between what’s real and what isn’t, which comes into play when Ari imagines the things her own mother would say to her, the ways in which she’d criticize and devalue her actions as a new mother as if she were still alive and in the room with Ari.

Still, the sense of detachment, as a reader, is present, and I found myself as a result never feeling as if I sympathized with Ari—not completely, and never as much as I wanted to. Another reason for this is the book’s tone. Albert is, to put it mildly, abrasive in her writing. Her characters are as quick as they are sharp; Ari is a verbal blade to the throat, with all manner of fucks at her disposal. Now, ordinarily I like this—Dahlia, titular star of Albert’s last novel The Book of Dahlia, is one of the more outwardly antagonistic protagonists I’ve come across, and I frigging adored her (and by the end, I practically wept for her). Ari’s tone seems at times quite similar to Dahlia’s—very similar, in fact—and just as disaffected (though their reasons are vastly different—Dahlia was dying from cancer). But where Dahlia felt like a singular creation, leaping fully formed from the page, Ari feels more like an echo—like a voice narrating from off the page rather than popping off it of her own volition. Again, while I feel this is deliberate, done in service to Ari’s journey and confusion as a new mother, it doesn’t change the fact that even by the end, with so much of her past and her family’s past laid bare, I was still unable to wrap myself around her as a three-dimensional character. Perhaps this speaks more to my own experiences—while I haven’t personally dealt with cancer, I can at least, to some tiny degree, imagine the ways in which a mind works to rationalize its changed existence and future; but giving birth, even raising a child, is something I can’t begin to fathom, let alone understand on a physical level.

The most “human” and accessible Ari appears is when she’s in the company of Mina. There’s a certain sense of idolatry in Ari’s view of Mina, as a woman so seemingly unafraid by what she’s experienced so far in life, or of what’s to come. Ari feeds off of this strength. And when late in the novel the parameters of their friendship change, Ari employs her well-trained defenses, pushing her plate away, so to speak, rather than allowing herself to cherish her last few bites of Mina.

Despite what I’m sure sounds like a lot of criticism, I still enjoyed reading After Birth. Albert is an incredibly sharp, economical writer, and this novel, interestingly enough, manages to be both fiercely personal, covering subject matter few would be so comfortable being so open about, yet strangely impersonal in form, in how it relays Ari’s experiences to the reader. But perhaps instead of trying to dissect this dichotomy further, it’s best I let Ari speak for herself:

Everyone’s so “worried” about me all the time. I haven’t really “bounced back,” as Sheryl says.

Sometimes I’m with the baby and I think: you’re my heart and my soul, and I would die for you.

Other times I think: tiny moron, leave me the fuck alone so I can slit my wrists in the bath and die in peace.

Advertisements