I had a pretty successful reading month in October, so it’s been pretty disappointing that November seems to be starting off so slowly. I was really excited to get into this one but it just took me so long to read. I had to have a huge reading session yesterday in order to get through it in time. Still, I managed it and that’s the main thing. I’ve just been so tired lately. It’s not as if this is a particularly boring story. In fact, fat from it. It’s just not the kind of book that could keep me awake at night. Thankfully, I had plenty of time this weekend to get it finished.
Motherhood has long been a ripe topic for writers to tackle but in Nightbitch, Rachel Yoder manages to tackle it from a new angle. With aspects of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, she tells the story of a suburban stay-at-home mother who finds herself embracing her animalistic side. The unnamed woman eventually takes on the moniker of the Nightbitch as she becomes wilder and slowly less human. At one time, the mother was an artist who ran a local gallery but she gave up work when she became a mother. Her life was suddenly full of her child and snatching moments when she could. In between taking him out, playing with trains and sorting out his snacks, she began to reminisce on the person she used to be.
Then, at night, she begins to notice that she’s changing and losing control. She gets angry with her son and her husband. She notices patches of hair sprouting at the base of her neck, her teeth get sharper, and she finds herself growling when she’s annoyed. It gets to the point where she is even convinced that she’s grown a tail, which she has to prevent herself from wagging whenever she’s happy. What does anybody do when they start noticing weird things about their bodies? She Googles her symptoms. When that doesn’t lead her anywhere, the mother finds solace in a book, which seems to perfectly describe everything she is experiencing. But is she just another hypochondriac or is she actually transforming into something?
There’s always been a link between motherhood and animalistic traits. It’s that deep biological urge that kicks in, where women will do whatever it takes to protect their offspring. The reason why mothers are so often compared to bears, wolves and other wild animals. Yet, at the same time, mothers are meant to be nurturing and caring. Our patriarchal society expects mothers to be domesticated rather than wild. There are still plenty of sections of society that believe that a woman’s place is in the home. Yoder’s novel shows the two sides of motherhood and the struggle women face in finding out who they are.
The choice for the mother is a complicated one. Does she give in to her instincts and embrace the dog way of life? Or does she settle for the oppressive and regimented life as a stay-at-home mum? Of course, she chooses to embrace the dog but finds it difficult to fully let go. When the reality of her inner wildness kicks in, she often finds herself regretting her choices. So instilled are the traditions of motherhood that do anything out of the norm feels outrageous. Although, she finds that the choice makes her a better mother. Her son joins her in the “game” and things start to become easier. A weight is lifted.
I admit that the actual story of Nightbitch is absurd and ridiculous but there is real social commentary here. It raises important issues about feminism and gender roles. There is also a touch of mental health and post-natal depression. Yodel’s novel raises some important points and presents them in a different way. For generations, women have been putting aside their passions and their freedom because that’s what society has told them to do. Nightbitch is a celebration of female autonomy and choosing to be who you want to be. The writing here is beautiful and visceral. When the Nightbitch is free, the violence is described in such stark detail and is a wonderful contrast to the mundanities of motherhood.
I will admit that the ending doesn’t fully work for me because there is something slightly unconvincing about art being the answer to all of the Nightbitch’s problems. Or at least finding a vocation. After the freedom we witness through the book, the ending almost seems to weaken the argument of accepting that wild side of you. That undomesticated side. Her motivations just don’t seem as strong as they should do. I also think that some of the comedy doesn’t land. There is some good dark humour here but it doesn’t always work. There are moments where it is forced. Yoder tries too hard to get the comedy in and it doesn’t quite come off. This is certainly a fresh take on the subject but I also don’t think there is any radical thinking introduced here. Nevertheless, it’s a strong debut and well worth a read.