Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"After Birth," by Elisa Gilbert

Elisa Gilbert’s main character Ari, in the novel “After Birth” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), is not only not afraid to speak her mind, but seems unable not to do so, strongly, harshly at times, compulsively, emotionally, and with little filter. She has recently given birth by Caesarean section, and feels traumatized and angry about the experience, about the way medicine treats pregnancy and childbirth, and about the fact that no one warned her what the whole experience would be like. Ari lives in a small upstate New York town where her husband teaches at a local college, and where she is supposedly working on her doctoral dissertation in Women’s Studies, but where she has in fact not been able to do anything since her baby boy’s birth. Although she loves her baby, Walker, deeply, and is learning to love him more as he gets older, she is overwhelmed not only by the birth experience but by the complete change in her life, and by her inability to do much more than just survive each day. She is lonely; her mother died when she was young and was not a good mother anyway, she has no sisters, and she has made but almost always somehow lost many friends over the years. Her husband Paul is a good man, supportive and loving, but doesn’t really understand what Ari is going through. A major plot strand is that Ari meets a former musician, Mina, who has given birth even more recently, and they form a bond that helps them both during this difficult time. This novel could have become merely a blast against the medical establishment and against the way motherhood is in the U.S. today, and that is certainly a big part of the message. And it is an important message. Because childbirth and motherhood is definitely a strange new land, one that no woman can be really prepared for. And it is true that the hard parts, the sleeplessness, the postpartum depression, the overwhelmingness of it all, are rarely talked about or written about. (Of course not all women suffer all of these, or at least not as intensely as Ari does, but many do.) So Albert has done a good thing with this impassioned explosion of a novel. But if that were all, it might be more message than literature. Fortunately, despite the cry of anger and desperation that forms so much of the novel, it also features realistic and compelling characters and situations, and growth on the part of the main character. Further, the writing is self-aware, even witty.
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