“Mothers,” notes feminist literary critic Jacqueline Rose in her book of the same name, “are the original subversives, never — as feminism has long insisted — what they seem, or are meant to be.”
For every stereotype about sacrificial mothers that wends its way into the cultural bloodstream, a small army of macrophages lights out to engulf it. Certainly, this has been the case in the literary sphere. Recent years have seen a spate of novels offering subversive depictions of motherhood, from Rachel Yoder’s “Nightbitch,” a cytokine storm of a novel in which a mother turns into a dog and laps up the freedom that ferality entails, to Emi Yagi’s “Diary of a Void,” which revolves around a single woman who fakes a pregnancy on a lark to prove to herself that she exists and to excuse herself from dreaded work responsibilities.
Olga Ravn’s “My Work” is the latest entrant in the burgeoning crop of works about gestation and its discontents. As with Yoder and Yagi, one senses that Ravn, a Danish novelist who wrote the National Book Award-longlisted “The Employees,” has internalized the tropes of motherhood, only to reject them with dazzling vehemence.
For Anna, the 28-year-old narrator of the novel, incipient motherhood makes her a stranger to herself but also restores her creative urge. “I feel I have returned, like a time traveler, to the state of pregnancy; as though I could travel up and down through the layers of time.”
It’s a nice image, but not entirely accurate; “layers” suggests that the past neatly arranges itself inch by sedimentary inch, but Anna has already revealed that she has a much more wayward relationship with time. Writing about herself in the third person — part of the novel’s strategy to mimic the estranging effect of motherhood — she notes that “she doesn’t seem to adhere to any chronology, and I cannot pretend to grasp the timelines of her writing.”
The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos, meaning roughly linear or chronological time, and kairos, which has been called “a propitious moment, the time for decision or action.” The experience of being pregnant and then becoming a mother suspends Anna between these two planes of time. Each moment feels at once momentous — each new trimester is gravid with potential, the birth of a child rearranges her world — and, in the larger scheme of things, mundane. It’s a recipe for perpetual disorientation.
Even if Ravn’s work doesn’t obey a strict chronology, there is a compulsively readable, diaristic, thinking-out-loud quality to her writing. The book starts off stutteringly, with chapters titled “First Beginning,” “Second Beginning,” “Fourth Beginning,” and so on, as if Anna were tossing salvaged scraps of red meat to her inner “art monster.” Like writers Jenny Offill and Rachel Cusk, Anna agonizes over her ability to be both what D.W. Winnicott called a “good enough mother” and to lead some semblance of a creative life after moving to Stockholm with her young family. Her husband, Aksel, is a playwright who is away for long stretches of time, making her the parent who does the lion’s share of childcare. Given the asymmetry, resentments inevitably fester.
Ravn’s chapters eddy around themes that will surely resonate with anyone who has given birth or even spent extended periods of time with an infant. “When the child was born (or perhaps it happened stealthily during the pregnancy, like a brewing storm), life was divided into separate entities that had to fight amongst themselves for the right to exist,” Anna writes at one point, before going on to observe, “these parts of me, separate yet linked, to connect them, to gather them in one place; that is my work.” The “work” that makes up the novel’s central nervous system is not just about domestic labor, but also about professional work — or, in Anna’s case, the difficulty of securing a foothold in the white-collar world after giving birth. Even in a country with relatively generous paid parental leave policies, Anna’s boss at a publishing house justifies cutting her salary since motherhood makes it impossible for her to work overtime without pay.
There are snatches of surprising lyricism throughout, as when Anna writes about the “insistent, Christmassy indifference” of snow. That lovely phrase is itself nearly snowed in by a flurry of observations about what she is “not writing” about: “I’m not writing a poem about the emails I send back and forth to my bank to borrow money, I’m not writing a poem about the immense loneliness from before, that place where writing and anxiety reside, the place with no bottom or end.”
“Writing is living twice,” Eileen Myles once wrote. In negating the conditions for writing, the cruel math of motherhood correspondingly reduces life’s expansiveness. Or so it initially seems. Ravn, to her credit, compasses both views. “The final days of maternity leave” are “an impersonal poison,” Anna writes in one poem, penned 11 months after the birth of her son. Yet, a few years on, she reflects, “Why am I trapped in the belief that writing about motherhood is shameful when I know that creating life where there once was none, creating flesh where there once was no flesh, is one of the most radical and outrageous things a person can do?”
The false belief may be as pernicious as it is popular, but for a moment, Ravn shows a way out.
by Olga Ravn
New Directions, 416 pp., $18.95
Rhoda Feng is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Vogue, and more.