Julia Alvarez mines poetry from grief in ‘Afterlife’

Literature review afterlife julia alvarez
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Grade: 4.5/5.0

“Afterlife” opens with a poem, a fitting introduction to poet and novelist Julia Alvarez’s comeback to the world of adult novels after 14 years of focusing mostly on children’s and young adult literature. Rather than honing in on the coming-of-age experience, “Afterlife” tackles the other end of the stick: old age.

It follows Antonia Vega, a writer and retired college professor who immigrated from the Dominican Republic in her youth, as she lives her recently widowed life in Vermont. Sans job or husband, Antonia is stifled by grief, but keeps in regular contact with her three sisters — Izzy, Tilly and Mona. 

Unwittingly, she becomes a reluctant benefactor when two undocumented Mexican immigrants, Mario and Estela, come to her for help. Her life is thrown even more for a loop when Izzy, who has bipolar disorder, abruptly goes missing and sends “the sisterhood” into a panicked frenzy.

Alvarez is a writer of many mediums who relishes in the intricacies of language, and so is Antonia: Her close third-person narration is full of quotes, niche and famous alike, and words constantly running through her head even when she doesn’t know what to say aloud. The striking decision to omit quotation marks from dialogue situates readers firmly in Alvarez’s melodic prose and the anxieties of Antonia’s head — yet there is also some distance between the reader and Antonia, resulting in a form that mirrors the bereaved looking in on themselves grieving and, perhaps, being surprised at their own capacities to feel.

“Afterlife” is a gorgeously written book, a compact and lyrical melodrama. It acknowledges how rife it is with “telenovela material,” as Antonia explains, but maintains that “it isn’t a telenovela to the people it happens to.” Alvarez’s terse realism, combined with her lilting writing style, is a combination that works well in service to the “telenovela material” she commits to the page. 

The result is a novel that resists the temptation to drip with cynicism in reaction to the heavier themes it brings up, but also refuses to sugarcoat or render our world into a utopia. The many different strands of social commentary running throughout “Afterlife” are subtle, yet sharp, leading to a punchline that readers will want to stick around for if they find themselves getting a little tired of sympathetic cop characters popping up every now and then. 

Antonia as the protagonist is another great achievement, a heroine who would probably be aghast to hear that she is being called a heroine. Alvarez does a spectacular job at presenting the different layers of societal privilege, without apologizing for it, in a way that might feel performative or trite. Although Antonia is an immigrant, she has climbed the social ladder and become an accomplished academic and writer, leaving her feeling conflicted when it comes to deciding whether or not helping her undocumented neighbors is the right thing to do. 

Similarly, mental health is extremely relevant throughout the book, without being the main focus such that it begins to obscure the overall story. The depiction of Izzy’s bipolar disorder, while at times tough to read, is true to life and gripping — another example of “telenovela material” not being “telenovela material” to the people it actually happens to. 

The only want that “Afterlife” leaves readers with is, perhaps, the want for more about Antonia’s history with her husband and sisters; there’s more details provided to fill in the gaps of Antonia’s childhood, but less so with the marriage that meant so much to her. Despite this, Alvarez still manages to successfully make clear the lasting importance of Antonia’s husband and characterize him through the way Antonia is always thinking about him. 

Ultimately, Antonia is no savior, and to be a compelling protagonist, she doesn’t have to be. Alvarez gets that the Latinx experience really means myriad experiences, and the book doesn’t need to explicitly be about those experiences in order to prove it.

“Afterlife” can be purchased on bookshop.org, a website that shares proceeds with small, independent bookstores. Alternatively, you can use bookstorelink.com to search for independent bookstores near you. Many bookstores in the Bay Area are currently offering delivery services and curbside pickup.

Contact Alex Jiménez at [email protected]. Tweet her at @alexluceli.