It would be really easy to dismiss Sheila Heti’s “novel…
At the sweet spot of this book, a relatively new mom is allowed a reprieve from the daily anger that surrounds the birth of her son — though she won’t use the word “birth” because it is a scene that she describes in more butcher-ish terms. Ari has used the limited tools of her sleepy upstate New York college town to create a small community. Finally. She and a tabloid-bait former Riot Grrrl-turned-poet-slash woman of advanced maternal age, as they call it, are holed up in a sublet exchanging stories and interchangeably parenting each other’s small children. And by “parenting,” I mean breastfeeding.
The scene in Elisa Albert’s novel After Birth feels like a great place to exhale. It’s one of those scenes where a person wants to freeze everything exactly the way it is and appeal to a higher power: “This! I choose this! Keep it just like this!” But, of course, as Ponyboy and Frost would say “Nothing gold can stay.”
Anyway, Ari is somewhere beyond the second wave of feminism and she’s holed up in an upstate college town where it’s possible to find friends — but not the good kind. After her baby is born by C-section, she collapses into feelings of isolation (her mother was awful and is long dead and she’s alienated her old friends by the mere fact of becoming preg). Depression isn’t a new state for her, and she eventually gets her head above water by settling in with the gays down the street. She and her infant become fixtures at their house.
Then they go abroad.
But they sublet to a former rock-n-roller — the kind of rock-n-roller who never made it super big, but from the band all the super big rock-n-roller’s credit as an influence.
Ari finds Mina in a situation that is similar to her own, and moves in as the wisdom-imparting girlfriend and this mini village becomes a powerful force.
In a lot of ways, Albert’s novel feels like it grew up sharing a bedroom with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Both star new-ish mothers navigating a whole new world, but Albert is centered on the isolation and Offill’s spins into the aftermath of an affair. Neither characters seems to have gone into the birth with a Pinterest board filled with nursery designs and a notebook filled with vintage baby names. Albert’s Ari is raging because there are so many things that no one tells you (and there is a dissertation that is being ignored), whereas Offill’s protagonist centers on the surprise of the soul-tug when you didn’t even know you had a soul.
Both are great, great novels absolutely dripping with authenticity.