The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Is Exhausted

THE NURSERY, by Szilvia Molnar

“I used to be a translator and now I am a milk bar.”

One of the first things they teach you in critic school is that you’re not supposed to start a review with a quote. But “The Nursery” Szilvia Molnar’s brilliant debut novel about a new mom falling apart within the four walls of her apartment — is so relentlessly quotable that I’ve found it impossible to resist opening with her own words.

“I used to be a translator and now I am a milk bar.” It’s a line that raised a half-laugh, a yelp, of recognition in this reader — I remember feeling exactly like that, a milk bar, in those shocking early postpartum days. As happens with stunning regularity in this book, Molnar’s sentence gives up riches and terrors. She is describing a transformation that is total, painful and deeply baffling. The joke holds a dumbfounded recognition of absolute metamorphosis, its drama evident in the evenly weighted balance of the sentence structure. I was that and now I’m this. Midsentence, the narrator changes her identity entirely. And she can’t go back.

“The Nursery” concerns itself with something every new mother goes through: the discovery that she’s gone from being a (relatively) free entity roaming the earth to a bleeding, exhausted body that exists mostly to nurture her baby. Molnar pushes this transformation into the stuff of quiet horror. In doing so, she’s written an essential and surprisingly thrilling book about motherhood.

There’s nothing really unusual about the narrator’s circumstances. She’s married to a nice-enough fellow, and — as we see through a series of flashbacks — both were excited when the narrator got pregnant. The birth itself was successful in that a baby was produced and no one died or was injured in any extraordinary way. And yet. Home from the hospital, charged with the care of this small creature, the narrator is unrecognizable to herself. Space, time and identity are altered. She’s not taking it well. She tells us on the first page: “The baby I hold in my arms is a leech, let’s call her Button.”

The narrator’s lack of affect seems inversely proportionate to her distress level. Molnar’s book, with its nameless protagonist and oppressive non-eventfulness and cool prose, suggests the work of a number of contemporaries — Ottessa Moshfegh, Sheila Heti — but in the end it’s Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” that’s the most apt shelfmate. We are watching a consciousness unravel.

Our narrator seems to approach motherhood as a fight, a fight for which she is as ill prepared for as any young soldier who finds himself at the front. There’s a long, graphic passage about changing her giant maternity sanitary pad that reads as if she’s performing battlefield surgery on herself; then, on the next page, she gets ready to pump breast milk: “Alone in the apartment, I assemble the pump as meticulously as an assassin with their cherished weapon.” Before she goes to bed, she psyches herself up: “I think of everything that could happen tonight. And yet, there is nothing that can prepare me.”

A sense of looming violence stains the entire book. The narrator harbors dark feelings toward the infant; even as she cares for it, she weaves fantasies of harming it. (Her attitude toward Button has clearly rubbed off on me — the baby is in fact a girl; a “who,” not an “it.”) She says to the infant, “Let’s wring you like a wet cloth.” She muses, “I mean, sometimes I picture myself crushing her with my foot.” She Googles: “how common is wanting to kill your baby?

This is scary, serious stuff, but Molnar is more interested in existential obliteration: What would happen if you fell out of time? This inquiry gives the book a heft that feels outsize for such a slim volume. As she descends, the narrator becomes preoccupied with the mysterious ways that time moves, and doesn’t. Time origamis around her and seems to suffocate her in its folds. She asks, “Has there ever been a description of a mother holding her child for hours? Has anyone unraveled the little hours? My state might be a portrayal of the elasticity of time.” And: “Has there ever been a description in literature on what it entails to change an infant’s diaper?”

Another way to put the question: What if we wrote birth and motherhood as if they were as valorous as war? What would our literature look like then?

It’s tempting to read “The Nursery” as if it were memoir — to interpret Molnar’s writing down of the “little hours” as a triumph of telling, to imagine that the narrator and author are the same person, and that the book you hold in your hands is proof of her healing.

But the narrator is not the author, and there’s very little indication that the narrator really gets better. In fact, the point might simply be that there is no getting better, that this stew of family and politics and hormones and need is not solvable. As I considered the sheer ordinariness of the narrator’s circumstance, I began to wonder: Is this the tale of something diagnosable, something we put in a file named “postpartum depression”? Or is it simply an honest rendering of a transformation that would make all of us unrecognizable to ourselves, if only we sat with the truth, as Molnar has done here?

Claire Dederer is the author of “Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning” and “Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses.”

THE NURSERY, by Szilvia Molnar | 208 pp. | Pantheon | $26

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