Julia Alvarez is one of our most prolific writers—her work spanning multiple genres and audiences. She has published three books of nonfiction, three collections of poetry, 11 books for children and young adults, and now seven literary novels. Her latest, Afterlife, is her first adult novel in nearly 15 years. Fans of Alvarez know what a powerful storyteller she is, a talent so notable she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama in 2013. But as Afterlife reminds us, it isn’t only Alvarez’s storytelling that is so compelling, but also her unparalleled voice.
The story centers on immigrant writer Antonia Vega, a recent widow and retired English professor. As Antonia settles into the quiet, lonely rhythms of her new life, she is confronted with the disappearance of her sister, Izzy. Antonia’s life is further jolted when she’s pulled into a drama with a neighbor’s undocumented farmhand and his pregnant girlfriend. Faced with choosing who needs her more, Antonia must pick: family or a stranger. She is one of four sisters, so others can stand in her absence, but the decision is weighted. The novel explores ideas of responsibility to others—how do we determine whom we’re responsible to and how much?
Alvarez has a remarkable ability to show how our personal lives can enmesh with political questions:
You need a little me-time, a former colleague had recommended to Antonia when they bumped into each other in town. It smacks of a privileged mindset that believes itself exempt from the ills the rest of the world has to contend with. Antonia recalls the reporter in front of a devastated neighborhood in post-Katrina New Orleans noting with astonishment: We’re used to scenes like this in Haiti or Africa, but this isn’t supposed to happen here. Antonia played the clip to her classes. Does suffering hurt less if you’re poor? she asked the room full of young students.
And, here, in this unsteady teeter-totter where the political merges into the personal, the story takes root. The novel becomes an inner journey of a woman after retirement and widowhood, not to find—but to remind—herself of who she is after she’s stripped of her partner and life’s work. But personal growth doesn’t happen in a bubble and Antonia’s path back to herself is wrought with her compassion for the young, pregnant immigrant seeking her assistance.
Her conflict highlights our country’s own—mothers and children are separated at our nation’s southern border while questions about America’s responsibility to its fellow humans arise. When one disagrees with an unjust, even cruel system, at what point do we step in? If silence is complacency then just how loud do we need to speak out?
Antonia, like many of us, questions how much power she actually has as an individual; she feels “the depletion of spirit, the slow bleed of chronic grieving.” There’s a universal feeling of helplessness, of the futility of our actions, which seem so small and insignificant, against the mounting injustices in the world. Antonia expresses feelings of powerlessness compounded by her losses, “language used to be good at staunching the flow, the intense—call it desperate—need to get the words just right. But more and more words are inadequate…”
More and more, it’s not our words, but our actions that matter. Antonia’s story shows us that while we can’t control the larger societal narrative, we can change how we ourselves respond to it and the people impacted by it.
The story’s climax comes and goes a little too neatly and easily, but the novel’s virtues—of which there are many—are separate from its plot. Reading Alvarez’s work is a reminder in the enduring power of literature, of what it can and should do. Its job isn’t simply to entertain, but to move us, challenge us, change us.
Me agarró el tremor, Mario says. Grabbed by fear. Personification is not merely a literary term, she used to tell her classes. Literature has to pull its weight in the real world or else it’s of no use to us.
Literature pulls its weight when it forces us to meditate on contemporary life, to step outside ourselves and question the status quo. Make no mistake. Afterlife pulls its weight in the real world.
by Julia Alvarez
Published April 7, 2020