Book Review | Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens

eleven-hours-review-paiges-pagesTITLE: Eleven Hours
AUTHOR: Pamela Erens
PUBLISHER: Atlantic Books
RELEASE DATE: July 7, 2016
GENRE: Adult Fiction

Eleven Hours combines the stories of two women from totally different walks of life.  The first is Lore, a fiercely independent 30-something woman in labour with her first child.  The second is Franckline, her pregnant Haitian midwife.  For the next eleven hours, both women undergo life-changing emotional journeys.

This story could not exist without its complex female characters.  Lore is a standout for me.  When we first meet her, she’s determined to have her strict birth plan obeyed to the T.  Franckline observes how, beyond Lore’s seemingly impenetrable walls, she’s only a scared little girl.  

Lore got her classwork done and managed to stay it school, but she never found the time to make friends, and finally it was as if she’d lost the knack of it.  Four years of her mother’s illness contracted around her and squeezed her into a different shape, so that she became detached and careful, a provisional sort of person, someone who did not believe in the day after next.  Then her mother was truly better, but Lore stayed close by and kept her heart free, afraid to be spirited away by some love affair or ambitious impulse – because What If? – page 28

At first, I found Lore’s defensiveness made her off-putting.  However, the more that Erens reveals of her story, the more empathetic she becomes.  She grew into an extremely relatable character, whose development challenged me to reflect on myself.

A standout aspect of Lore’s character is how she defies normative gender boundaries – she is strong and weak, hard and soft equally.  In a world where female opinions and consent often come second to male agendas, Lore’s self-belief is refreshing, even confronting.

“No,” says Lore.  And though she says it quietly, there is finality in it.  Franckline has rarely heard such a “no” from a woman.  Where did Lore learn to say hers?  What makes her believe it will be honoured? – page 16

On the other hand, Franckline has a wealth of experience worlds apart from Lore’s middle-class American life.  Her intuitive talents as a midwife far precede her immigration from Haiti.

They called her Ti Matrone, the little midwife.  Over time she absorbed the practicalities: when to make the woman walk, when to make her drink, when to wait.  By the time she was eleven or twelve she knew how to turn a breech baby, apply herb compresses for heavy bleeding, make a woman expel a baby that had died.  The villagers said she has the gift, she was what they called pon, or bridge, could bring life safely from there to here, from the womb to the world – page 20

Like Lore, Franckline is at a pivotal moment in her life, and must come to terms with past trauma before she can embrace the future.

Lacking chapter breaks, the narrative flows fairly seamlessly between the points of view of both women.  The division was approximately 60% Lore and 40% Franckline.  I can imagine some readers wishing the division was the other way around, since Franckline’s narrative is more unique than Lore’s.  As is, the differences between these American perspectives are thought-provoking.

Sadly, the ending gave me mixed feelings, bringing down my overall rating by one star.  Since finishing Eleven Hours, I went on to read Pamela Erens’ better known novel, The Virgins, which suffered from a similarly rocky ending.  I found both endings slightly melodramatic and alarmist.  I’m relieved I read this book first, otherwise The Virgins may have put me off ever picking it up.

Eleven Hours was mentally and emotionally stimulating from start to finish.  Its representation of women and parenthood inspired me, while the themes of relationships and identity were close to home.  

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