Revels and Roars and Might Just Rip Your Throat Out: Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

Posted 18th September 2021 by Siavahda in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews / 0 Comments

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder
Genres: Fantasy, Magical Realism, Urban Fantasy
ISBN: 0385546815
Goodreads
five-stars

One day, the mother was a mother but then, one night, she was quite suddenly something else...

At home full-time with her two-year-old son, an artist finds she is struggling. She is lonely and exhausted. She had imagined - what was it she had imagined? Her husband, always travelling for his work, calls her from faraway hotel rooms. One more toddler bedtime, and she fears she might lose her mind.

Instead, quite suddenly, she starts gaining things, surprising things that happen one night when her child will not sleep. Sharper canines. Strange new patches of hair. New appetites, new instincts. And from deep within herself, a new voice...

With its clear eyes on contemporary womanhood and sharp take on structures of power, Nightbitch is an outrageously original, joyfully subversive read that will make you want to howl in laughter and recognition. Addictive enough to be devoured in one sitting, this is an unforgettable novel from a blazing new talent.

Highlights

~never google health worries in the middle of the night
~a field guide to magical, shapeshifting women
~you know what, naptime IS better in the dog house
~the secret is: Give No Fucks
~cooked steak is for the weak

What on earth does one say about a book called Nightbitch?

I picked this up purely because of that amazing title; then the bewitching description convinced me to start reading.

And once I did, I couldn’t stop. Every other book I was already reading; mealtimes; my work; my husband – all else was forgotten. For two days, my world was Nightbitch. I can’t believe this is Yoder’s debut; really? Really? Are we absolutely sure? Surely no one can start right out of the gate with prose so crisp and tight and sharp; surely no one can so perfectly capture the complicated, contradictory powerlessness and power that is being female-bodied on the very first try?

Yoder makes it look effortless.

The nameless main character, referred to only as ‘the Mother’ – just as her child is just ‘the boy’, and her husband is just ‘husband’ – is hilariously, delightfully normal: Yoder makes sure to include the mother’s search terms whenever she goes online seeking explanations for the weird things that are happening to her, a tiny detail that does so much to humanise her – even if what she’s looking up are things like ‘fur growing on the back of my neck’ and ‘a cyst that is definitely the start of a tail’.

Not that she needs any more humanising; from the first line she all but leaps off the page, so complete and real that it almost physically hurts. Because she’s so tired, is the thing; so trapped in a situation the whole world, and she herself, insists is a luxurious decadence, and not a trap of any kind. She is a stay-at-home mom! She gets to spend every moment of every day with her baby while her husband works; isn’t she lucky? Spoiled, even? She’s living the dream!

Except, not.

Let me be blunt; I’m not a mother and have absolutely no desire to be. I’m the eldest child of nine; I have a good bit of experience with small children, enough to be sure I don’t want more, even if I had the temperament for it (I don’t) and no red flags in my genetics to potentially pass on (of those, I have an abundance). My stepmother’s situation is very like that of the mother in Nightbitch, in that my dad is also away more than he’s home and she is, in many ways, effectively a single mom. I tell you this to make it very clear I was already primed to be extremely sympathetic towards the eponymous Nightbitch, because I have a tiny idea of what her situation is like.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how completely immersive Yoder’s writing was, and the deft, hypnotic way she blends the mundane and the magical. Nightbitch is as much about the struggle of naptimes and outings to the park as it is the fact that the main character is – maybe, probably, definitely – turning into a dog, and… I have complicated feelings about child-raising; I did not think anyone could make it compelling to the point that I’d enjoy reading about it. But it helps that Yoder presents it as complicated, as something even a mother has mixed feelings about; something that is not a constant source of joy at all, and yet something it would be unbearable to give up, and even if I don’t understand that on a personal level, Yoder made me believe it.

And there is just something ridiculously awesome about this tired-repressed-be-nice-be-nice woman turning into a literal bitch as the manifestation of all her conflicting feelings, her building rage, her rapidly diminishing store of Fucks. Because, of course, women Like That get called bitches by default, and Yoder makes it literal, and makes it something that, yes, is confusing and scary, but is also enormously freeing and revelatory and delicious. The metaphor is not subtle.

The story as a whole is incisive without providing easy answers – because there just aren’t any – and addictive as hell. But I wouldn’t call it nice. Not just because it’s dissecting a whole bunch of uncomfortable truths and upending this cultural mythology we have about motherhood, but because the Mother character is…human. And sometimes kind of awful, or gross, and even (in her canine shape, mostly) violent. I was incredibly upset by the death of an animal that happens on-page (even as I massively, terrifyingly understood what was going on, even as I got it, it was still upsetting), and readers who are sensitive to animal deaths should consider skipping this one – there’s more than a few scenes where canine!Nightbitch kills rabbits and things, and at least for me it was uncomfortably graphic.

It never felt like it was there just for shock value, though. All of it, even the uncomfortable bits – hells, especially the uncomfortable bits! – fit together in the story Yoder is telling, the point(s) she’s making. This is very much a book about savagery and animalism, about tapping into something vicious and primal and powerful, and if I wish it hadn’t been quite so cis-woman centred – there is a great deal expounding on pregnancy and childbirth and the (cis) female body and how fucking cool it all is, honestly – I still get it. It’s not that pregnancy is the only way to be a mother, and it’s not that you need a functional uterus to be female, but for people who do have uteruses and do experience pregnancy and childbirth and so on…yeah, I can understand how that is seriously trippy to think about. I don’t think it’s TERF-y unless you’re saying only people with XX chromosomes can be mothers/women, and Yoder doesn’t go there. Still, I would have liked to know how the fierce magic Nightbitch discovers would manifest for queer women, for mothers who’ve adopted their kids instead of giving birth to them, for trans women and nonbinary people. That wasn’t part of the point Yoder was making, but it would have been nice.

Nice – not necessary. At least, not for me. Because I think this book is fucking awesome just as it is. Nightbitch is fantasy and thesis and manifesto all in one; an indictment, exploration, and call to arms. It questions and revels and roars. It’s absolutely, definitely one of my favourite reads of the year. And I really hope you’ll give it a try.

five-stars

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