“It tells a story. That it has been broken.”
My last read of 2022 was by an author that fits in a special place in my booklover’s heart. I haven’t read Julia Alvarez in years, but you don’t forget How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents or In the Time of the Butterflies that easily. Occasionally you read a book by a wondrous storyteller at the perfect time, in the perfect place, and it sticks to your bones. Alvarez is like that.
Afterlife (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2020) is a pocket-sized novel. I found the size a little bit off-putting, but I realize the dimensions of a typical hardback would not work with this short novel. It’s a story that is short on words, but big on heart. Stylistically, it’s quite different from the two early works that I adore, but it still showcases her mastery at writing about sisters.
It’s a novel of grief and loss. Antonia, an author and professor, is on her way to meet her husband to celebrate her retirement when he has a heart attack and crashes. What follows is an unmoored woman grieving her husband and trying to regain her footing. Her sisters are scattered but form a support system over the phoneline. But it’s her neighbor’s undocumented employee who gives her purpose. Mario initially comes to help her around the house, but he quickly asks for her help with getting his young girlfriend to him. There are coyotes and money is owed.
While Antonia is dealing with young love and issues with ICE, her sister Izzy disappears. Antonia tries to help in their search to find her, but you can’t pour from an empty cup. Antonia travels to help, but she believes her husband sent her the situation with Mario, and it’s not far from her mind. When she returns, Izzy is still missing and there is a pregnant teen in her garage.
Izzy dies by suicide, and Antonia’s heartbreak grows. But there’s Mario and Estella, and they need her.
There are two scenes that are expertly crafted. In one, Antonia is searching missing person profiles as they consider posting Izzy. “Antonia catches herself lingering among the entries. Maybe she’ll spot a familiar face, Samuel Sawyer, 71, last seen on the way to his favorite restaurant one evening in late June to celebrate his wife’s retirement.”
The other is brief. Izzy had a birthmark on her wrist that looked like plane. While trying to get Mario, Estella and the baby to the airport, Antonia is stopped by the police. Knowing she has two undocumented individuals and a USC baby in the car, she begins to worry ICE will be called and the young family broken. The baby is crying, and Mario is trying to calm her down when a plane flies overhead. The baby falls silent. “Antonia watches as the speck in the air crosses her windshield and disappears into a bank of clouds.”
Tension is lifted. The first officer leaves. And a friend in uniform sends them on their way. Antonia spent so much of the book looking for signs of an afterlife, and they were all around her. Antonia finally begins to heal.
Read this book.