Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens
Tin House Books, 2016; 176 pp
Reviewed by Bobby Fischer
Pamela Erens’s 2013 novel, The Virgins, explored avenues of female sexuality at a prep school, framed with the device of male fantasy. At the prep school of the novel’s setting, this fantasy shaped our perception of the young girl at the center of the plot and confronted issues of shame and privilege—while essentially stripping our sympathy from the narrator and awarding it to the narrator’s victim. This structurally difficult approach to social commentary through fiction appears to be Erens’s modus operandi. Her new novel, Eleven Hours, takes place during the eleven hours of labor leading up to the birth of a child. The use of childbirth as a framing device allows the novel to be written in the grammar of the body, the physical and emotional pain of the experience coloring narrative lines that flow backwards from the labor itself and into the events that shape the characters into the people they become by the time we meet them.
The story focuses on two women, Lore and Franckline. The former shows up at the hospital ready to give birth, consciously and willfully alone. The latter is Lore’s nurse in the maternity ward. Franckline is also pregnant and alone, though slightly less of both. Her family is in Haiti, and her pregnancy is a secret. The sense of aloneness that binds these two women together is obvious to only Franckline, but Lore finds comfort in their sameness and in the nurse’s willingness to treat her as a human being. This connection becomes most obvious when another nurse enters the room in Franckline’s absence. Lore is immediately adverse to this second nurse, and answers all her questions and treats all her requests with absolute scorn. To be fair, the adversity is not unwarranted: The new nurse continually calls Lore “Laura,” no matter how many times she is corrected. When this new nurse, this not-Franckline, inquires about Lore’s pregnancy, Lore attempts to shock her by co-opting her former friend Julia’s story: that this wasn’t her first pregnancy, and that she had to abort the previous one because it was a result of rape. This lie shocks the nurse—as it shocks us—into silence. The nurse is shaken because rape is harrowing. We are shaken because it is harrowing for a character we are identifying with to lie about such a thing.
Though Franckline is not present for the lie, it compromises their bond. It does so because this is not Franckline’s first pregnancy—hers ended as the result of a bicornate uterus, something that informs the dangers of her current state. As an audience, we’re mildly aware (some of us more than others, a split that comes mostly along gender lines) of the many things that can and do go wrong with any given pregnancy, but the introduction of a specific problem that one of our main characters has dealt with personally—as opposed to in her capacity as a nurse—informs the drama in a page-by-page way that makes it all feel very dangerous. Because this has happened to Franckline, it could happen to her again. Because this has happened to someone so bound to Lore, it could happen to her too. This sense of danger is elaborated upon by Erens’s incredible ability to write about pain that comes from deep inside the body, originating someplace more primordial than simple biology.
Woven throughout the current timeline are flashbacks to both of our protagonists’ lives, and slowly we come to learn why Lore showed up at the hospital alone and why Franckline is so emotionally invested in these eleven hours. These flashbacks are coded in present pain from each woman, and because we are attached to them, it’s easy to see the betrayals and difficulties they suffer as betrayals and difficulties for us, whereas if the novel were told linearly our take on it may be, if not different, cooled off a little. The novel is fatalistic in the Richard Taylor sense as far as our sympathies are concerned: The future determines the condition of the past.
If The Virgins used its complex structure to emphasize the power of fantasy to shape the past and expose its narrator, Eleven Hours uses its relatively simple structure to focus on the way that our bodies and the trauma they are exposed to—emotionally, in the sense of betrayal; physically in the sense of the birth—does the same. The exposition here, this time, however, isn’t about revealing male privilege and the poisonous entitlement it engenders, but about female strength in the face of unreal pain and the anxiety of expectation. Erens captures the bonds and hope that can arise from these circumstances, through a forever colored past and into a hopeful future.