"I HAD NO IDEA how fucked up this was going to be," says a woman with a newborn in Elisa Albert's new novel, After Birth. "Tell me about it," replies Ari, the protagonist. Ari and her new acquaintance, aging ex-riot grrrl Mina Morris, are new mothers with some strong opinions on baby formula and swaddling, but if you're looking for mommy-blog smugness, you won't find it here.
After Birth is a brutal, occasionally graphic, sharp-edged look into Ari's life in the year after her son was delivered via Caesarean section. At just under 200 pages, it's a slight, starkly constructed habitat. In a haze of postpartum depression, Ari slowly recovers from an invasive surgery she didn't choose, while simultaneously railing against and welcoming the feeling that her identity has been subsumed by motherhood. Meanwhile, she's profoundly lonely, living with her academic husband in a rundown college town in upstate New York, and desperate for the promise of female companionship she sees in Mina. Ari's also haunted by two ghosts—that of the women's studies dissertation she's no longer actually working on, and her long-dead mother, whose edges were even sharper than her own.
There are two myths about this book I'd like to dispel right away. The first comes from author Shalom Auslander, who's called Albert "[Charles] Bukowski with a vagina and a motherfucker of a hangover," in what can be (charitably) read as an attempt at high praise. If you're looking for a lady Bukowski, though, you have no business reading this book. Because After Birth's frank talk of "surgically evacuating" small humans, the "commonplace violence" of undergoing an involuntary C-section, and its strong undercurrent of undeniably female rage—what Ari describes as "the fucking, the sadness, the dark, the blood, the light"—would almost certainly have left Bukowski squicked out and quaking behind his hangover-sunglasses.
Another not-quite-right take on After Birth comes from one of Albert's staunch champions, author and Emily Books co-owner Emily Gould, who wrote on Twitter, "This book takes your essay about 'likeable female characters,' writes FUCK YOU on it in menstrual blood, then sets it on fire. Then sets YOU on fire! Then giggles, then makes s'mores over your smoldering corpse." While I love that image more than words can say, it gets one thing wrong: Ari is totally likeable.
Perhaps in all those conversations about likeable female characters, we've forgotten something key: Characters like Ari are only unlikeable if you've never talked to an actual woman. Which is maybe why I loved her so much. Encountering a character like Ari on the page was like hanging out with a mouthy, incredibly smart friend—the antiheroine I'd been waiting for. Ari gives zero fucks about political correctness, and she's often the only person in the room brave enough to say what no one else will, like when she and Mina take their babies on a nontraditional field trip to a nearby ghost town. "You're supposed to take your baby to windowless baby gyms or basement baby music class or whatever the fuck," she says. "Not out into the actual grim, broken world, where glass might cut and the floor might collapse and there's money to be made in fresh ugliness every day." And yet, for Ari, there is freedom in acknowledging that ugliness, in exposing, rather than softening, the sharp edges of the world.
The experience of following Ari through After Birth as a reader is not unlike Ari's own fascination with Mina and hope for a beautiful friendship. Too often, women in novels are flat constructions, far too insubstantial to allow for fair judgment as to their likeability; they're paper dolls or symbols, not people. But, man, I've known women like Ari. I'm sure you have too. And you owe it to all of them to read this book.