A widely acclaimed young writer’s fierce novel, in which childbirth and new motherhood are as high stakes a proving ground as any combat zone
A year has passed since Ari gave birth to Walker, though it went so badly awry she has trouble calling it “birth” and still she can't locate herself in her altered universe. Amid the strange, disjointed rhythms of her days and nights and another impending winter in upstate New York, Ari is a tree without roots, struggling to keep her branches aloft.
When Mina, a one-time cult musician — older, self-contained, alone, and nine-months pregnant —moves to town, Ari sees the possibility of a new friend, despite her unfortunate habit of generally mistrusting women. Soon they become comrades-in-arms, and the previously hostile terrain seems almost navigable.
With piercing insight, purifying anger, and outrageous humor, Elisa Albert issues a wake-up call to a culture that turns its new mothers into exiles, and expects them to act like natives. Like Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and Anne Enright’s The Gathering, this is a daring and resonant novel from one of our most visceral writers.
The buildings are amazing in this shitbox town.
Late eighteenth-century row houses. Dirt-basement Colonial wonders. High-ceilinged Victorians. Clapboards. Wood stoves, crappy plumbing, gracious proportions. Faded grandeur, semi-rot. Clawfoot bathtubs with old brass fixtures rusty as hell. Here and there the odd sparkling restoration. Someone’s nouveau riche marble kitchen.
Here’s my favorite: four-story brick, three windows wide, with a Historical Society Landmark plaque. Built in 1868. Elaborate molding painted many shades of green. My friends Crispin and Jerry spent the better part of ten years rehabbing it. They’re on sabbatical this year in Rome, those bastards. They sublet to this amazing poet with a visiting gig at the college. Mina Morris. I’m a little obsessed with her, by which I mean a lot, which I guess is what obsessed means.
The parlor curtains are open and the lights are off.
I drove Crisp and Jer to the airport, and Crisp handed me an estate-sale mother-of-pearl cigarette case perfectly filled with nine meticulously rolled joints.
I teared up.
Medicine man, please don’t go.
Listen. He lifted my chin and met my eyes in this avuncular way he has. You’ve come a long way. You’re going to be fine. He said it slowly, like I might be very old, very stupid, or both.
I have five joints left.
The baby’s first birthday approaches. Still, there are bad days. Today’s not so bad. Today I have fulfilled two imperatives: one, the baby is napping; two, we are out of doors, a few blocks from home.
Anyway, Mina Morris. Crisp gave me her contact info because we’re supposed to be landlord proxy, Paul and I, take care of anything that comes up with the house while they’re gone.
Mina Morris. Quasi known as the bass player from the Misogynists. Girl band, Oregon, late eighties. Lots of better-known girl bands talk about having been influenced by them.
Cold this week, and dark so early. Late afternoon and the light is dead. So it begins: months of early darkness and cold. November again, back around to another. Last November a nightmare blur of newborn stitches tears antibiotics awake constipation tears wound tears awake awake awake limping tears screaming tears screaming shit piss puke tears. My weeks structured around a very occasional trip to the drive-through donut place near the mall, baby dozing in the back. Idling in the crappy old Jewish cemetery across the highway, heat cranked, reading names on crooked headstones, sipping an enormous, too-sweet latte, tapping at the disappointing glow of my device.
Faint whistle. There goes a train. To the city, probably. Four fifteen. Too late for the baby’s nap now, too close to bedtime. But I’ve given up trying to control this shit. If you have an agenda, any needs or desires of your own (like, for example, to take a shower, take a dump, be somewhere at a given time, sit and think), you’re screwed. The trick is to surrender completely, take your moments when you get them, don’t dare want for more.
Mina Morris: erstwhile poet, almost rock star. Here, in Crisp and Jerry’s house. Gives me an obscure little thrill, it does. I want to be friends.
A third-floor light goes on, and simultaneously the baby starts up with the whimpers. I take my cue. Keep the stroller moving, always moving, a reflexive animal sway. Respite over. Maneuver down the block toward the river, up Chestnut, and on home. Put some cheese on crackers and call it dinner.
Another day gone, okay, and I get it, I got it: I’m over. I no longer exist. This is why there’s that ancient stipulation about the childless being ineligible for the study of religious mysticism. This is why there’s all that talk about kid having as express train to enlightenment. You can meditate, you can medicate, you can take peyote in the desert at sunrise, you can self-immolate, or you can have a baby, and disappear.
I’m not interested in anything.
Which might make sense if I was all consumed with thoughts of baby-food making and craft projects and sleep-training philosophies and bouncy-chair brands, but I really can’t get all that excited about any of that shit either. So basically I have no idea what to do with myself, Paul.
Babe. Give it some time.
Fine, I mean, great, but how much time? He’s one, Paul.
Exactly, babe, he’s one.
You should just send me away someplace. You should just take me out back and shoot me.
Utrecht, New York: the valiant but disgusting Bottomless Cup, the filthy antique shop with unpredictable hours, the burrito bar with blurry pane glass. Windowless Ozzy’s, the diviest bar ever, embodiment of dive, hilarious exaggeration of dive: jaundiced, wispy-haired men in stonewashed denim smoking endless cigarettes and playing pool on a disintegrating table at eleven in the morning. The tiny cheesecake-burlesque joint run by kids (it’s funny how you start calling them kids) who graduated a few years ago and are committed to local regeneration. They smoke weed and bake all day, act sort of put out when you come in wanting a slice of caramel toffee and some tea. Long-empty storefront, recently empty storefront, long-empty storefront.
Two hundred miles directly up the river on the east side, forty-five minutes past the sweet antiques, the second homes. A town, I guess you’d call it, a once-upon-a-time town, some blocks of cheap, amazing, mostly run-down houses crying out for restoration by the likes of us. We are happy to oblige them, the houses. We live like kings. When Paul got this job I was six months pregnant and we thought: okay, yeah, go fuck yourself, Brooklyn! We spent like a hundred dollars on an amazing 1872 four-bedroom Italianate with a killer porch and congratulated ourselves on the excellent aesthetic of it all, no “good” school district for miles, relatively low volume of hyper-ambitious creative aspirants, stoic wide planks groaning wisely underfoot.
Our accountant works out of the creaky Albany townhouse where Herman Melville spent part of his childhood. There’s an okay coffee roaster, a tiny wine bar, a tinier used-book store, and a shitbox convenience store. And the food co-op two towns over where I work Fridays like a good little citizen. Sometimes I even wear the baby around in a sling.
The college in town is pretty much its own thing — rich kids who didn’t get into fill-in-the-blank — and the town, or the quasi town, has been in varying stages of rot for a while. Some faculty live in this handful of blocks, in these amazing, intermittently neglected houses sloping down toward the overgrown banks of the river; others live in head-shakingly unattractive suburbs spreading out like rays from the sun of the mall north of here. A stubborn few actually commute from the city, refuse to be separated from that fucking city, not even for wildly affordable pocket doors and stained glass and exquisite molding and antique tile and anti-glamorous/glamorous social annihilation.
In the early nineteenth century, Utrecht was the center of shirt-cuff manufacturing, big bustling factory supported the entire town, until a succession of pat...
Winner of the 2016 Paterson Fiction Prize
One of NPR's "Best Books of 2015"
One of Bustle's "2015’s 25 Best Books, Fiction Edition"
An Electric Literature "Best Novel of 2015"
One of HelloGiggles's "23 Books from 2015 You Absolutely Must Read"
One of Brooklyn Magazine's "12 Best Books of 2015 that Didn’t Get Enough Attention"
A People Pick March 2015
One of O, The Oprah Magazine's "10 Titles to Pick Up Now"
One of Publishers Lunch's "Favorite Books of 2015, From the News Editor"
“Elisa Albert’s brilliant new novel…It’s obscene, reckless, vicious, hilarious and above all real…it ought to be as essential as ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’…Albert has inherited the house Grace Paley built, with its narrow doorways just wide enough for wit and tragedy and blistering, exasperated love…”
—Merritt Tierce, the New York Times Book Review
"Albert's scathing send-up of modern motherhood boils with dark humor and brutal honesty."
"A smartly acerbic exploration of motherhood."
—O, The Oprah Magazine
"Elisa Albert's take on birth, motherhood and female relationships is the antithesis of the treacly cliches that so often surround these well-trod subjects. Her story is messy, devastating and raw — deeply felt and deftly told. Through the experience of Ari, a hard-core feminist party girl/academic, Albert explores the most difficult part of becoming a mother: the eclipsing of your identity and relationships, and the struggle to find your footing in a completely new world. It will leave you marveling at the power women have to survive, to break each other's hearts and, when we're lucky, to rescue one another."
—NPR, "Our Guide To 2015’s Great Reads"
"[A] wonderful primal howl of a novel."
—Sam Sacks, the Wall Street Journal
"An entertaining take on the vicissitudes of female friendship"
—The New York Times
“In its unremitting coarseness and ferocity, her language takes the sentimental platitudes that all mothers are fed (lies!) and spits them back with purifying fury.”
—The Washington Post
"Albert has given us a portrait of modern motherhood that will provide insight for some and provoke others. For others still, in its quieter moments, as it reaches for an honest way to talk about birth, it will be like that big old bell ringing in them, a reading process of recognition and reunion."
"After Birth roars with the anger of betrayal. Albert is abrasive and sharp, intelligent and painfully real. There is no room for gentleness in her novel, no time to waste looking for a kinder way of speaking. [It's] looking for a fight, it’s unladylike, it’s pissed off, and it’s going to tear everything you thought about birth and motherhood to shreds."
—Jeva Lange, Electric Literature
"Albert [has a] light touch, comic timing, and [an] ability to move effortlessly between registers...After Birth is a political novel, and a feminist novel. It’s full of anger and frustration and heartache. It is also hilarious and entertaining...fresh and daring."
—Alexis Nelson, The Los Angeles Review of Books
"Albert’s novel is an unflinching look at the trials and tribulations of new motherhood, yes, but also the realities of being a woman and the attendant never-ending quest to find a place in a society that doesn’t want to make room for us on our own terms and it is as much a story of heroism and personal maturation as is Crane’s classic. It is easily one of the best books of this year, and, really, any other."
—Kristin Iversen, Brooklyn Magazine, "The 12 Best Books of 2015 that Didn’t Get Enough Attention"
"Anyone who's just had a baby absolutely needs to read this."
—Emily Gould, Paper Magazine
"A tour through the often overlooked realities of motherhood, friendship, and the days of riot grrrl, Elisa Albert's novel is the antidote to the crippling expectations of society on women."
—Sarah Galo, Bustle, "2015’s 25 Best Books, Fiction Edition"
"I am helpless with love for Elisa Albert’s work. Something about her voice and her style, not to mention her subject matter, just does it for me in a way no one else’s books do, and I’ve been salivating for years for her to come out with another one...Albert is great on the darkness at the heart of all kinds of hallowed intimacies, and even when you’re gasping, appalled by the narrator’s pinched, cruel worldview, you’ll never stop reading."
—Emily Gould, The Millions
"As sharp as a fresh-cut diamond...Bright, angry, very funny, diving into uncomfortable truths about the female body and female behavior, this novel has it all."
—Flavorwire, "10 Must Read Books for February"
"Elisa Albert’s book, After Birth, is very easy to fall in love with. Because it’s not just about motherhood, and birth, and family. It’s also about friendship and jealousy and feeling like you’re not sure whether you belong somewhere. A feeling almost all of us have felt at some point or another."
—HelloGiggles, "23 Books from 2015 You Absolutely Must Read"
"Albert turns her now-trademark dark humor and merciless lens on the first chapters of life from the perspective of a new mother, and the result is a perfect balance of light and dark...[Her] writing excels."
"In lesser hands, Ari might be unlikable, but Albert imbues her with searing honesty and dark humor, and the result is a fascinating protagonist for this rich novel."
"After Birth is a voluptuous, hilarious, scaldingly and exhilaratingly honest account of new motherhood, emotional exile, and the complex romance of female friendship. I'm a huge Elisa Albert fan, and in her latest she has perfected a tonal pivot that whips the reader from laughter to revelation in a sentence."
—Karen Russell, author of Sleep Donation and Swamplandia!
"A deep, funny novel about the terrors and exhilarations of love in all its forms. Elisa Albert writes with startling clarity and furious wit about marriage, motherhood and friendship, illuminating these familiar landscapes with lightning flashes of revelation."
—Jenny Offill, author of Dept. of Speculation
"After Birth is a fast-talking, opinionated, moody, funny, and slightly desperate account of the attempt to recover from having a baby. It is a romp through dangerous waters, in which passages of hilarity are shadowed by the dark nights of earliest motherhood, those months so tremulous...
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