In the opening pages of Rachel Yoder’s debut novel, an anonymous middle-class mother in an anonymous American town finds a patch of coarse hair on the nape of her neck. She examines her teeth and finds them sharper, more pointed. A lump is growing at the base of her spine, like a vestigial tail. She does what we would all do – she googles. “[She] searched humans with dog teeth on her phone, searched do humans and dogs share a common ancestor, searched human animal hybrid and recessive animal genes in humans and research human animal genes legacy history … and then, because she wanted to, searched rest cures and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, which she had once read in college, then stared blankly for a while at nothing in particular while sitting on the toilet, then stopped searching altogether.”
This mother, who is stuck at home with her hyperactive two-year-old son, flush with resentment at her largely absent husband, feels herself changing. Not just on the outside, but inside, too. While her eyebrows caterpillar across her brow and hair sprouts on the tops of her feet, a feral impulsivity growls inside her: “She wasn’t turning into a dog … she could not let herself imagine such fanciful things, and didn’t, except at night, once the boy was asleep, when she sat, panting, at the window, staring into the open dark night.” As her frustration with the inertia of bourgeois domesticity grows, the allure of the primal becomes stronger. The quotidian irritations of her cossetted life drive her to acts of unrestrained violence. She longs for the savour of raw meat. She becomes Nightbitch. How, and why, and exactly what Nightbitch is, is never fully explained, and doesn’t need to be, but she finds succour in a book at her local library titled A Field Guide to Magical Women, which paraphrases the novel’s central themes: “To what identities do women turn when those available to them fail? How do women expand their identities to encompass all parts of their beings?”
There has been something of a resurgence in stories of feminine monstrousness – see Julia Armfield’s salt slow, Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet, or Daisy Johnson’s Fen – but Yoder’s take feels very fresh, even mischievous in its handling of the metamorphic trope. She ironises the ponderous trappings of the gothic with a chatty, insubstantial tone, employing lots of exclamation marks and other deceptively corny affectations. It all helps to build a disconcerting intimacy with her pseudo-canine protagonist. We follow Nightbitch as she stalks by shimmering hosta leaves, through the gardens of sprawling McMansions and under the strip lights of mega malls, all brightly evoked in Yoder’s exuberant, velvety prose.
The mounting incongruity between Nightbitch’s profane interiority and this sanitised, suburban mise en scène yields some of the novel’s funniest scenes. “Voracious with death, she and the boy descended midday on their favourite lunch place downtown, just across from the library,” where Nightbitch buries her face in a plate of macaroni as though it were the viscera of a rabbit, to the horror of neighbouring diners. Not all of the humour worked for me. Some of the jokes – and I am fully aware I am saying this in the context of a review of a book in which a woman turns into a dog – strained credulity. A fellow mother names her daughter Aubergine, “eggplant but French” – really? Likewise, Nightbitch’s husband’s comic obliviousness to her condition edges, at times, into the cartoonish.
Yoder’s humour may sometimes miss the mark, but her commentary on the assorted neuroses of modern womanhood is graceful and coolly incisive. Standing in her kitchen at dusk, surveying the havoc wrought by her toddler, Nightbitch feels “she could almost touch her loneliness, like a second child”. Once again consulting the internet for answers, she reflects on the condition of her equally lonely, equally afflicted peers: “Sick women with no discernible diagnosis, pains and bruises and aches and anxieties without cause … who were consumed by their bodies and, at a loss for someone to turn to, turned to each other, each one staring into her own white square of light.”
Where Yoder’s novel felt most original to me was in this harnessing of the familiar tropes of individual transfiguration to a broader social critique. The novel’s premise reads like the literal embodiment of an expensive residential workshop Gwyneth Paltrow might endorse: centre the spirit through dog-play. Find your inner wolf mother. The sensational nature of the Nightbitch’s metamorphosis reveals, by contrast, the paucity of what capitalism offers moneyed western women, torn between the conflicting demands of work and family: herbal remedies in bijou packaging, a new pair of leather boots. “Oh my God!” exclaims another mother, when the Nightbitch arrives – grizzled and shaggy, in a torn kaftan, her hair unwashed for a week, because she is turning into a dog – at a local toddlers’ group. “You are so boho! I love what you’ve done with yourself.”
Despite these satirical undertones, there is a pleasing generosity about this debut. Nightbitch’s premise may not be radically original, and neither is its denouement – but Yoder’s peculiar wit infuses new life into the cold, furry flesh of the monstrous femme.
• AK Blakemore’s The Manningtree Witches is published by Granta. Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder is published by Harvill Secker (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.