by Blanka Šustrová
The image of motherhood we are being served through the media, be it in advertisements or film, depicting always happy, fresh looking, never tired young mothers with perfect bodies who feel no other thing whatsoever but pure love for their babies and seem to be on top of every task that motherhood brings is often a derision of the real experience and may bring feelings of insufficiency in mothers and primary carers. If you would like to read about motherhood from a very different point of view, a very well-crafted one that goes from satirical and darkly funny to magical realism to absurd to horror and leaves you baffled in the end, try Rachel Yoder’s novel Nightbitch.
The reader is presented with a normal ‘textbook mother’—she lives in the suburbs, her husband works through the week away from home and comes back on weekends, and since his salary is bigger than hers, they decided to bury her art career in order for her to be a stay-at-home mother. It practically makes her a single mother because she has to take care of their two-year-old boy herself, every day and every night. Because when the husband comes home, he is tired from work and will not take care of the child. At the beginning of the book, she tries to rationalize this arrangement and the decisions they have made but feels frustrated because her motherhood is not like she has seen on TV—she is incredibly tired and the boy is moody and naughty. The image of what motherhood should look like is shattered and seems like a prison for her—she is now financially dependent on her husband, who rarely takes care of his child, which makes her tolerate him; she is trying really hard to parent the child the way it is supposed to look like, even though she experiences bursts of anger and hate towards the boy, and she envies the mothers who have it all—a good husband, a good child and still a good job they worked so hard for. Besides all this, she seems to be growing hair in unusual places. And a tail.
Terrified, she turns to her husband who dismisses her, yet her change continues—at night, she turns into Nightbitch, running after prey with heightened senses, hungry for blood, with head completely clear of her human worries, focused, mindful. Naturalistic and sensory descriptions Yoder uses when the woman is in this state are at first fresh and luscious but as the woman continues to have problems to suppress her “dog self”, they turn into abject and nightmarish. The son notices her change and imitates her behaviour, which leads to him being calmer and a happier child—at first it scares the mother when the boy runs around the playground and barks and wants to eat like a dog—what will other mothers say?—but once she eases into her new self and also allows the boy to express himself (albeit also by eating raw meat), they both find a bond they never had before. The more she embraces her beastly self, the better she can take care of the child and the less she needs her husband, who is now charmed by her sudden self-confidence and spontaneity. She doesn’t care about societal norms, about the pressure to perform “the perfect TV mother” act; the most important thing for her is that she creates a special bond with her son, and can take care of him alone without problems and is able to fully satisfy her needs, like lying in wet grass and hunting smaller mammals. As a performance artist, a career that was taken away from her because of motherhood, she finds a new calling—to shock and terrify the suburban mothers drawn into multi-level marketing schemes, who are desperately trying to emulate the happy stay-at-home mother TV lifestyle who is denied her personhood and who is reduced to one role only. She presents them with a new version of what it means to be a mother, a powerful beast without boundaries, a free independent woman— motherhood is a brutal experience, why shouldn’t you be a beast?
The whole book is written in the third person, all the conversations are paraphrased and the whole narrative is filtered through the mother. Interestingly, it never loses its tempo—that of a driverless steamroller with turbo engine barrelling downhill. It will lead you from dark humour and satire through magical realism to an abject horror and a commentary on motherhood and the expectations we hold towards it. Nightbitch is written in a crisp, funny and naturalistically brutal, yet very elegant prose that stands out in this year’s flood of debut novels and it’s definitely worth a read.
Rachel Yoder holds an MFA in fiction from University of Arizona and is also a graduate of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program. She has been awarded The Editor’s Prize in Fiction by The Missouri Review. She is also a founding editor of draft: the journal of process. Nightbitch, published by Doubleday in July 2021, is her debut novel. It has been also optioned for film starring Amy Adams.