What’s the most awfullest, horriblest, worstest thing that can happen to a woman?
Why, having a baby, of course!
That’s the theme of After Birth (yes, it’s a pun), the new novel about motherhood by Elisa Albert that the critics are falling all over themselves to heap praise upon like whipped cream on a hot fudge sundae. After Birth has everything book-club-chic you can think of crammed between its covers: Brooklyn (where the heroine, Ari, hails from, natch), a sensitive professor-husband, a witty, transgressive gal-pal, depression spells, women’s studies (Ari’s own academic field), and most prominently of all, the sheer dreadfulness of being a new mother.
Ari had her baby by caesarian section, you see—and you’d think she was the very first woman in the entire world to be forced to endure that nightmare. She describes it:
They cut me in half, pulled the baby from my numb, gaping cauterized center. Merciless hospital lights, curtain in front of my face. Effective disembodiment. Smell of burning flesh. Sewn back up again by a team of people I didn’t know, none of whom bothered to look me in the eye, not even once of them, not even once. Severed from hip to hip, iced, brutalized, catheterized, tethered to a bed, the tiny birdy’s heartfelt shrieks as they carted him off somewhere hell itself.
She can’t stop talking about the horror of it all: “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.” About babies in general, Ari says, “even the best are oppressive fascist bastard dictator narcissists.”
The critics can’t get enough of this. Merritt Tierce of the New York Times writes:
“’After Birth’ cuts open the body of literature on mothering, birth, feminism, female friendship, female hateship — whether academic treatise or poem or novel — and wrenches out something so new we barely recognize it. Wet, red, slimy, alive: a truth baby.”
Not to be outdone, Jonathan Sturgeon at Flavorwire is open-mouthed with shock that no one ever told him about the sheer ghastliness of childbirth:
About a quarter of the way through After Birth, I became radically astonished by its newness. I felt diminished and enlarged. Obviously on the subjects of pregnancy, child care, and female friendship, I am a know-nothing. But it seemed wrong that the book did not already exist. It was almost as if I had been slighted by its previous non-existence.
In an interview with Slate, Albert revealed that the novel was based on her own maternal experiences:
You know, having a baby is not unlike dealing with a death. You’re in shock. You’re not necessarily sitting around sobbing and ripping your clothes all day—you’re just in a weird, wound-up, bizarre-o state that’s totally different from your “normal” life.
Like dealing with a death! Having a baby is that bad!
I wonder what all those new mothers did for all those thousands of years did before Elisa Albert came along to tell them that they had just gone through something really, really grim.