Alvarez begins “Afterlife” with a flurry of loss. Her narrator, Antonia Vega, recently widowed by a car accident, “cannot comprehend how someone she loved . . . can be nothing but dust / unread emails, fragments, unpaid bills, memories.”
Trying to find purpose in retirement, in widowhood and in the America of today, Antonia possesses a restless intellect prone to the citation of poetry. With unabated grief, she greets a birthday she does not wish to celebrate. Enter her three sisters — Tilly, Izzy and Mona — who bring drama that props up the plot.
As searing as sibling histrionics can be, personal vendettas within the family pale beside the plight of Mario, an undocumented worker on the farm next door. His young girlfriend, Estela, is traveling north from Mexico in the custody of a coyote who ratchets up his demands for money that neither she nor Mario has.
Antonia does, though she doesn’t know whether to involve herself. Through this quandary, she and the reader examine whom we consider our neighbor. In “Afterlife,” Alvarez probes the contours of private moral decisions that echo our national conversation, which excludes migrant communities from claiming their contributions to this country.
With her landmark “In the Time of the Butterflies,” about four sisters in varying stages of rebellion against the Trujillo dictatorship, and “In the Name of Salomé,” about a former Spanish teacher who discards comfort to find meaning, Alvarez wove internationally relevant historical events into contemporary narratives. For such reasons, President Barack Obama awarded Alvarez the National Medal of Arts in 2013.
Writing most often from the Dominican American perspective, as a poet, essayist and prolific author of both adult and children’s books Alvarez has spent decades informing her readers about the kaleidoscopic possibilities of Latinidad.
In “Afterlife,” it would be easy for Alvarez to create Antonia as a wholly sympathetic narrator who does the right thing without question, even if most readers wouldn’t — or at least, haven’t yet. Instead, Alvarez puts Antonia through the paces of wrestling with the obligations of her privilege, gained through myriad assimilations that include marrying a doctor and moving to rural Vermont, where she “ended up teaching Americans their own language.”
“Anything else you need? she had asked Mario, a throwaway question in the circles she runs in, but in some parts of the world, among the neediest, what has been thrown away elsewhere gets recycled, put to good use.” Antonia had been planning to write a short book about “the people who keep our world going,” people whom she calls invisible until her husband, Sam, then living, countered with, “Invisible to whom?”
A good question. Without children or strong ties outside of her dead husband’s network, Alvarez’s insular narrator has a tendency to distance herself from the world by aggrandizing her own dilemmas, comparing her afflicted affluence to the biblical Job. Some of the narrator’s casually denigrating references — likening aging to dog years for those living in poverty, early in the book, and, toward the end, wanting to take an Asian teacher home as a “lucky charm to keep her safe from all the dragons” — remind the reader that embodying a hybrid culture does not, in itself, convey sensitivity or wisdom. But Antonia’s “depletion of spirit, the slow bleed of chronic grieving” will resonate with many readers in this era of social distance and anticipatory mourning.
Ultimately, “Afterlife” falls apart when Alvarez stops trusting the reader to understand her intentions, ruining perfectly good lines with narrative summaries. “We love each other as we are, Tilly brags. Some people would say that’s a definition of Christianity, Antonia points out to get a rise from her sister. Go to hell, Tilly curses.”
Still, there are moments. In the shifting dynamic between the sisters, Alvarez finds her stride. “The first rule of sisterhood: Always act pleased to see them.” As Izzy, the eldest and least dependable, becomes unreachable by phone, the three other sisters band together to find her. Their quest, alongside Mario and Estela’s reunification and the police involvement in both cases, anchors the book, which balances a community triumph with family tragedy.
“Afterlife” concludes without easy answers for Antonia, though she meets the last page having already embraced the “new life awaiting her / both terrified and excited.”
Kristen Millares Young is the author of “Subduction,” a novel forthcoming from Red Hen Press on April 14.
By Julia Alvarez
Algonquin. 272 pp. $25.95