What I learned from… ‘Nightbitch’ by Rachel Yoder

About the book

Nightbitch follows an unnamed mother who, after giving up her career to raise her son, finds herself overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood and the monotony of domestic life. She begins to experience strange physical and psychological transformations, including growing a tail.

As she grapples with her identity crisis and the challenges of motherhood, the protagonist adopts the persona of “Nightbitch” and starts to embrace her wild instincts and desires. She seeks guidance from a mysterious group of women who share her experiences, exploring themes of feminism, freedom, and self-discovery.

What I learned

This is Rachel Yoder’s first novel, garnering ‘best book of the year’ awards from Esquire and Vulture and praise across the board.

It’s easy to see why. It’s a short read at just over 230 pages but packs a punch. Yoder’s writing is assured enough to take the reader through what is probably the strangest book I’ve read this year. Above all else, the book is incredibly brave. Yoder manages to take a more-than-far-fetched story and make it relatable and real. Is this magical realism, or just a bizarre fantasy of the protagonist?

Nightbitch follows a character known only as ‘the mother’, who is bringing up her 2-year-old alone as her husband is away. But it’s not easy. She can’t get her son to sleep. She’s frustrated, alone and seemingly out of kilter with the concept of motherhood. Mother and baby classes are a social minefield, and she doesn’t fit in.

So following the discovery of a small patch of hair at the back of her neck, she takes a path away from traditional motherhood (just a tad) and transforms into a dog. To begin with, she resists the change, then starts to fully embrace her new-found canine-ness.

She growled at the women, then barked and barked and barked, closing her eyes and forcing the animal sounds from herself, her ab muscles contracting violently, her pelvic floor heaving from years of diligent Kegel exercises.

I could crush a walnut with my vagina! she yelled at no one in particular, and it was then that the people around her came into sharp focus: her friends – The Artists – seated across from her at the table, one of them shielding her eyes as if she were looking directly at the sun, the other with a slight smile creeping across her lips. An old man at the booth behind them, mouth agape. A small girl in the next booth cowering into her mother’s ribs, and her mother stroking her hair and shushing her and whispering comforting things as she glared at Nightbitch.

When she starts to embrace her new identity, she finds her true self, and begins to resist the pressure society bestows on mothers. And through that, she and her son start to thrive.

As the close third-person narration is so tightly focused on the mother and her son, the reader gets some sense of the isolation she feels. The story is claustrophobic, and while there’s no overt danger in the book (except to cats), there’s a nagging worry about what exactly happens when a new mum turns into a dog. I’d expect social services to pay a visit at the least.

The close third-person narration also gives an unnerving sense of how the rest of the world sees her. Is she really turning into a dog, or is this all in her mind? Or is it somewhere between the two? Because she’s never named, the narration can sometimes sound like a voiceover for an old-fashioned science TV show as she discovers first fur, then a tail, then teeth – then a ravenous appetite. This again distances the reader from the mother, so we observe her as outsiders, compounding her isolation.

This is a very cleverly-conceived book, and there are some very funny scenes, but the overriding feeling is one of stifling isolation – from one’s partner, society and one’s self.

More about this book

Published in 2021 by Harvill Secker

Nightbitch at Penguin


Rachel Yoder on X

About ‘What I learned…’

I read anything and everything and think there’s writing inspiration to take from from books of every genre.

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