Julia Alvarez is a good storyteller, as anyone who has read her most well-known novels, In the Time of the Butterflies, and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, knows. Afterlife, her first novel in 15 years, is another good read, if not quite up to those two acclaimed works.
The protagonist in this story, Antonia Vega, is an immigrant writer facing hard times. Her husband has died suddenly just as they were about to enjoy his retirement, one of her three sisters disappears, and she finds herself caring about an undocumented pregnant teenager who needs a place to live. On top of all that, she is trying to adjust to retirement from a satisfying teaching career. “Who am I going to be anymore?” she asks a sister. “Who am I?”
This is the story of an older woman grappling with grief, struggling to find a late-life identity, and contemplating her relationship to three siblings who “compare, compete, bicker, you name it, and at the same time [are] utterly loyal and bound to each other,” while all kinds of complications get in the way. That’s a lot to deal with, but despite those challenges one wishes at times that Antonia was more resilient, more compassionate, more self-assured, less withdrawn; in short, stronger than she is. Still, she does her best to cope, while searching for self, a troubled sister, and a way to help a lonely young woman facing motherhood alone.
Alvarez clearly draws on her own life in telling the story. Like Antonia, she lives in rural Vermont, and is retired from teaching at a notable New England college. Along with capturing the people and atmosphere of her chosen state, as well as those who emigrate there and hide from the authorities, she also brings the sensitivities and sensibilities of Latina culture into her work. All of that adds substance and verisimilitude to the story she tells.
Eventually, slowly, despite obstacles worthy of an archetypal journey, Antonia begins to realize that “we all have to make peace with longing, learn to live with the holes in our hearts.” Realizing that enables her to open her heart to the woman and baby who slowly bring her back to life. She begins to understand that she is not the only one who suffers, helped by drawing upon the wise words of poets and writers whose words she has loved as they too contemplated human suffering. Quoting Rilke she reminds herself, “Bless the spirit that makes these leaps, for truly we live in what we imagine.”
In the end, Alvarez helps Antonia, and us, believe that despite the depths of human suffering in the world and in Antonia’s life, Antonia will be able to imagine and live a life beyond loss. She will carry on and come back to the world, perhaps strengthened by adversity. That is a gift we gladly welcome from a good and acclaimed writer.