Review of Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

Yoder, Rachel. Nightbitch. New York: Doubleday, 2021. Pp. 238.

The protagonist of Rachel Yoder’s novel Nightbitch—a mother who thinks she is turning into a dog—is mostly unnamed, called only “the mother,” “MM” (as she signs emails), and, of course, “Nightbitch.” Her missing name adds not only to the surreal quality of the read but also to the feeling of something like universality. “Something like” because I know better than to think that everyone, or every mother, or every artist mother would be nodding along with every page. But still: I was wagging my own doggy tail, as it were.

The mother is a recently-employed artist, who, brokenhearted by reports of her infant son crying on dirty daycare linoleum, decided to be a stay-at-home mom. Her husband travels for work Monday through Friday nearly every week, and so she and her son spend the days mostly alone—he honking like the vehicles he adores, lying on his belly to watch, rapt, as the wheels of his trains turn, she peering into the bathroom mirror, prodding the points of her canine teeth, stroking the patch of hair on the back of her neck, Googling “real werewolves in history.”

The mother’s art feels out of reach from here, from this new life that she hardly recognizes, filled as it is with the park and the grocery store, naptimes and night-nights, and “Book Babies” at the library, where she encounters other moms who seem satisfied with their leggings and essential oils and toddler-ordained calendars.

The isolation is palpable and familiar, the child’s quirky behavior spot on, the search history progression funny and relatable. And so when mirror gazing turns to meat devouring turns to bloody romps through the neighborhood after dark, I slipped easily, right along with the mother, from rational to something much more—well, animal.

The novel is an extended meditation on rage. Rage at the absent spouse, the clueless (former) friends, the patriarchal structures, the changing body and mind, even the beloved child: his sleeplessness, his perpetual motion, his incessance.

But the novel is also an extended meditation on transformation. As the mother transforms, as her transformation transforms, so too does everything else: the husband, the friends, the house, the child. Even the rage transforms, from the inciting mid-night tantrum that earned her the name “Nightbitch,” to a well of inestimable power.

The power of her rage is sufficient to fuel everything, from her demands for quotidian support at home, to a reengagement with her art (thank God), to her love for her son, which is apparent on every page and deepens with each turn of it. To mothers who might fear their rage, who might worry it betrays the insufficiency of their love, the novel says, Sit. Stay. The pack of dogs who show up in the mother’s front yard and draw her into a feral afternoon also tend her child. The raw meat makes him rosy. The doggie games teach him to howl and to tussle and, blessedly, to sleep.

With the guidance of a mysterious library book that seems to speak directly to her need in each moment, and with the companionship of a group of other moms who are alternately more and less than what they seem, the mother sniffs her way into her own power. If she starts with a wary look into the bathroom mirror, she ends with a howl. She rolls in it. Like, literally.

And though she seems to slip into near-invisibility during her nighttime prowls, in the daylight, her power catches every eye. Soon her mommy acquaintances are teasing their hair and breaking out of their own ruts. Old women at the grocery store are calling up long-forgotten memories. Her husband—well, I’ll not give anything away.

The nights after the days when I read this book, the first time and the second, I dreamed doggy dreams that left me feeling invincible. The days after those nights, I suspected I could do any damn thing I pleased.

Nightbitch is Yoder’s first novel, and it was reviewed by The New Yorker and The New York Times and blurbed by the likes of Jenny Offill and Carmen Maria Machado. A line-up that heady could be expected to bring on writer envy for even the best of us, but mostly, as I read the book, I didn’t feel envious. I felt too empowered to feel envious. I felt like I too could write something weird and wonderful, not because it would be easy, but because I had it in me. Like we all do. And why wouldn’t we?

“This book tells all the secrets,” I told my own spouse, who, he’d want me to note, shares responsibility for “night-nights” and provision of meat. “What secrets?” he asked. “All of them,” I said. “About women and mothers and rage and power.”

Yoder’s particular brilliance is that she maintains plausible deniability. To the offended or squeamish, she can say, “Don’t worry, silly. It’s only a fairy tale!” And the worried brow can soften or the grimace can relax.

But some of us know: it’s true. Every word, every sniff, every howl.

About the Author

Shea Tuttle

Shea Tuttle is the author of Exactly as You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers and co-editor of Can I Get a Witness? Thirteen Peacemakers, Community Builders, and Agitators for Faith and Justice. Her essays have appeared at Greater Good Magazine, The Toast, The Other Journal, Role Reboot and Jenny. She holds an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Shea lives in Virginia with her family.