Review: After Birth

Tiresome rant in foul-mouthed baby talk


By Elisa Albert
Chatto & Windus, £10.99

Heaven save us from the post-feminist, feminist novel. At least I think that's what American writer Elisa Albert's book is. It's hard to tell, because Albert is a "literary stylist", so she experiments with new forms and isn't always coherent. For example, she doesn't use quotation marks during dialogues, or even tell you who is doing the talking. The narrative jumps irritatingly back and forth and is so heavily strewn with four-letter words that it seems she's trying to break a record.

The thin plot revolves around thirty-something Ari, who has left Brooklyn to live in a "shitbox" town in upstate New York, where her kindly professor husband landed a job at the local university. Giving birth to her first child hurls Ari into a world of clamouring self-pity because she finds (shock!) that babies can be very demanding.

Her main issue, apparently, is the lack of women around to give her sisterly support. Those whom she could call on - relatives, friends, locals - are all, for one reason or another, objects of Ari's contempt. In fact, she spurns most people, and the book is essentially a long rant against the world.

The wellspring of her anger, we suspect, is the death of her mother when Ari was 13. Not that she had liked her mother.

And now she has a distant relationship with her wealthy ophthalmologist father and his judgmental wife, who hassles Ari to get her son circumcised.

But Ari is fairly contemptuous towards all things Jewish: "Jewish summer camp. The words taste of strychnine even now. It made you wonder if… that whole idea about the Jews being an inferior race was actually kind of true?"

There is a Holocaust back-story, as her grandmother survived Auschwitz by sleeping with the Nazis. Ari is unmoved by this painful history but relates how she enjoyed getting special treatment at school on Holocaust Remembrance Day: "I liked how the facts of my family made me unimpeachable".

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with our charmless protagonist: everything is always about her.

She briefly bonds with new neighbour Mina, a "cool", former rock chick who also has a new-born baby. The two do get all sisterly, to the point of breast-feeding each other's babies, until Mina decides to move away again. Cue more selfish anger from Ari.

The 20th century witnessed women liberating themselves from oppression. But, in the 21st, they need to move on from narrow feminist grievances. Women will always be the ones to bear the babies. Get over it.

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