Reviewed by Phil
Julia Alvarez’s latest novel, “Afterlife”, is a gentle reflection on life after the loss of a partner. It explores the shadows, the echoes, that hover around long-shared routines now performed solo, the expected commentary, now silent, but still heard. But the book is much more than that. It’s also an exploration of the vulnerable situation of the migrant workforce on which rural industry depends, the people who dwell behind the scenes, far from home and family. And through this reflection and exploration, the book touches on possible answers to Tolstoy’s three questions: When is the right time? Who are the right people? What is the most important thing to do?
Antonia Vega’s life has been upended. Recently retired from her position as a professor of English literature, she slowly creates new patterns for her days. But then her beloved husband, Sam, dies, throwing her life into turmoil. Antonia keeps to her routines, “walking a narrow path through her loss. Occasionally, she takes sips of sorrow, afraid the big wave might wash her away”.
Antonia’s neighbor, Roger, is a farmer whose farm is barely afloat. He relies on the work of illegal immigrants, paid under the table, to keep things going. He stops by one evening and offers to have one of his laborers clean out her blocked gutters. And so Antonia becomes embroiled in the complexities of life as an undocumented worker.
The local sheriff visits one day. Antonia hesitates in a darkened room before answering the knock at the door. She is torn. Has the sheriff heard of her involvement with the migrant community? Is she in trouble? Should she answer the door? But the sheriff is sympathetic. He knows of her connections and is here to warn her of a rumored ICE raid. Can she spread the word?
And then her sister goes missing…
Julia Alvarez was writer-in-residence at Middlebury College until 2016. Her earlier book, “In the Time of the Butterflies” (2010), was selected for the National Endowment of the Arts’ Big Read program. In 2013, Alvarez was awarded the National Medal of Arts in recognition of her work. Born in New York, Alvarez spent the first 10 years of her life living in the Dominican Republic, before returning to the U.S. in 1960. She lives in Vermont.