Book Review: After Birth by Elisa Albert

May 19th, 2015  |  Published in May 2015

I am ongoingly impressed and reassured by the very high quality of fiction written by younger generations of writers, both American and internationally, from countries including England,Japan, Kenya, Nigeria, Australia Afghanistan, India, amongst others. In spite of all the digital hoo haa that we hear every day, legions of younger fiction (and non-fiction) writers still long to have their work out in print, in books.  Amongst the newest offerings is After Birth, a novel by young American feminist writer Elisa Albert, and this novel is exceptionally fine, both as literature and as a barometer of issues of importance to younger women , mainly from developed countries.

After Birth lets us into the mind of a young women living in Upstate New York, where her husband has a teaching job at a local college, and the narrator is very pregnant(she’s there to get her Ph.D. in Women’s Studies, as well).  Albert’s often angry, sometimes very funny, meditations on what it’s like to give birth with no friends or family around is the main theme of the novel, but this novel isn’t a blame-the-husband book; in fact, the narrator rarely has a hostile word to say about him. Rather, her sense of extreme isolation is caused by her disappointment that she has almost no women friends in the area, as her life experience to date (in New York City) led her to expect a kind of post-birth bonding experience, a sharing of tasks, a support group of women who’d also been through childbirth and understood the extreme isolation following it, the boredom of daily life with an infant (as well as fits of extraordinary love and bonding). The writer is exceptionally fine in describing her physical changes, her weight gain, the horrors of an unexpected C-section (which she doesn’t believe was necessary), how the laundry stacks up, her failure to wash her hair or change clothes much, the energy it takes to do any household tasks, including making dinner. Her husband does do his fair share, so his presence (and absence) are not defined as primary problems: that’s the freshest part of this afterbirth period, and perhaps the most insightful.

The narrator had lost her own mother decades ago, and she has no biological sisters, and she thinks about the strengths of earlier times when women cousins, aunts, grandmothers, in-laws et. al . would rally around a new mother, bringing comfort, as well as food and other domestic necessities and niceties: these women also were available for quick advice and counsel by phone, or might be over in ten minutes: Albert is aware of the loss of these support bases amongst more and more contemporary women, whose professional lives, in particular, have taken them away from their natural support bases . Albert meditates about friends her narrator has had   along the way, and what bonded these women together.  A visiting female poet will arrive at this small town college, and these two women do become close and intimate friends very quickly: the poet, formerly a member of a once much admired feminist women’s rock group called The Misygonists (nice touch on Albert’s part), is pregnant, and the novel follows their growing friendship and the help that the narrator offers to the poet, the very things she missed with her own post birth period.  These two women will actually nurse one another’s sons, providing moments of extreme intimacy and new ideas about friendship in the novel, and redefines areas of friendship amongst contemporary women today, smartly and admirably and often with wry humor. These two women spend an immense amount of time together, and the dynamics of their friendship is the redemptive part of the novel, beautifully written, its tone never too heavy or intense. Albert writes with great understanding about what women want and need in friendships with other women, and brilliantly about how women scope one another out as they seek such friends. I must add that Albert is exceptionally funny when describing wretched academic parties: the narrator does have a short fuse, anyway, but her husband never minds her attitude/behavior towards his colleagues or their spouses. So After Birth takes on a whole lot of territory;  it’s not a long book, but it’s a pithy one.

I hope that After Birth receives a wide audience; it deserves such attention, as Albert is an exceptionally fine writer; her crisp, often cynical sentences are rife with emotional tautness and her observations wry and often funny. This isn’t a novel for women per se: it’s a novel for all of us. Of course, no man can ever understand what it’s like either to be pregnant or to nurse a baby or entirely understand the boredom of being with a bundle of physical needs for a couple of years, but men can learn a contemporary woman’s perspective on all these things by reading this novel, and make certain , under similar circumstances, that women friends are available, if they can help in that area. Another fine addendum to the novel: our narrator will change her thesis topic because of her pregnancy and after birth; her thesis advisor, an unmarried/childless woman, will also fail to understand the changes wrought upon the narrator’s mind by these physical realities of her body, and that’s  another great strength ofAfter Birth’s , to remind us all that physicality (biology? Freud?) still weighs heavily upon women and how they live and think, but contemporary feminism has helped enormously in determining how friendships between and amongst women may be the mitigating factors in making these life transitions smoother. After Birth’s quite an impressive novel.

–Daniel Brown


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