In Eleven Hours, a young, expectant mother named Lore enters the hospital alone, determined to have an unassisted, natural experience. Her nurse Franckline, newly pregnant herself, knows what Lore will succumb to, but supports her on the journey. “Having a child is usually just a long patience,” she warns Lore.
After tackling loneliness in her first novel and teenage sexuality in her second, Pamela Erens flawlessly captures the experience of childbirth in Eleven Hours—the fear, the surprise, the other-worldly pain. Through gritty and realistic descriptions, Erens drills in on the finer details of labor. A 40-second contraction is explored not only as physical pain, but also as emotional trauma. Erens captures a sense of wonder at how the body can perform an act so strange.
The pain begins in her mid-back and pushes down and outward, murmuring, “Make way, make way,” to her pelvis and her ribs which fret and cry, “Impossible! Impossible!” and the muscles in her lower back contract like a fist that says, “Not today!”
During the quiet times of Lore’s labor, she wanders the halls of the hospital while her mind lingers on her list of painful relationships. Erens sprinkles in details about Lore’s former fiancé, Asa, and their mutual best friend, Julia. The love triangle is shared with the reader slowly, each pause in labor bringing a new dimension to the story of how Lore ended up in a hospital, determined to be both father and mother to her child.
And then another contraction pulls us back to the present, aching to know the rest of the story, but, as in childbirth itself, we must wait fitfully for the saga to unfold in its own time. Like the push and pull of the ocean, Erens teases us with Lore’s tale, one crashing wave at a time.
Each new ache and emotion startles Lore. Even steadfast Franckline, who has suffered pregnancy loss more than once, starts to waver from her own strength. Franckline takes the reader through her own journey—a painful past in Haiti—as she is troubled by Lore’s aloneness. As Franckline encourages Lore to give into the pain, she silently wonders if her own child is surviving inside her.
The book itself is short and sharp enough to read in one sitting. Yet, like childbirth, it is a complicated story, and patience is the best approach to absorb the weight of its message.
The beauty in Erens’s writing is the raw, visceral look at labor, childbirth, and the emotional jungle and physical pain a woman must weave through. There is reflection, regret, relief. Lore’s urge to push is not only physical, but also the need to push through feelings of self-doubt and face the vital questions: What now? Where, child, do we go from here?
Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens
Tin House Books
Published May 3, 2016