by Pamela Erens
Tin House Books, 2016
Eleven Hours does all that great books should do. It is moving in a way that surprises the reader, it showcases the author’s wise and artful use of language, and it resonates after its ending. Eleven Hours is a short novel with no chapter breaks that takes place over the eleven hours of labor that Lore endures and a nurse, Frankline, attends. It would be easy to devour this book in one sitting but it’s worth savoring.
Pamela Erens’s two previous novels were praised as lyrical and honest with sympathetic character portraits, and Eleven Hours is no exception. Eleven Hours appeared on the “Best Books of 2016” lists of NPR, The New Yorker, Kirkus, Literary Hub, Entropy, and the Irish Independent. It received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal.
Eleven Hours opens with Lore arriving at the hospital alone, in labor, with a detailed birth plan. Since it is a slow day in the maternity ward, Frankline is able to spend more time with Lore than she normally spends with other patients. A veteran at attending births, both in America and in Haiti, Frankline has seen—and been through—a lot. She sees through Lore’s hard exterior and thinks of her as a girl though she is in her thirties. “Frankline can see that she has a pretty self as well, a self more delicate and tender that contradicts her heavy, doleful energy. It is a hidden self, though, wary and watching.”
Erens travels back and forth seamlessly between each character. As Eleven Hours progresses, each woman’s life is revealed on the page, though not to each other. And the reader can, like Lore, be “caught up short by the discovery that other people had stories they didn’t tell, or told stories that weren’t entirely true. How mostly you got odd chunks torn from the whole, impossible truly to understand in their damaged form.”
Over the course of the book we learn bits and pieces of Lore’s story which includes a love triangle between herself, Asa, the baby’s father, and Julia—Lore’s former friend and Asa’s ex. Asa had assured Lore that after Julia “he understood now what adult love could be. Something where two people did not merge so completely that they had trouble figuring out where one ended and the other began, but rather the joining of two strong, separate beings, creating a future rather than trying, over and over again, to redo the past.”
Frankline, too is trying to move beyond her past. She is early into her own pregnancy but has not yet told her husband because she’s haunted by the outcomes of her previous pregnancies. Her family and her youth in Haiti seem far away, when “time seemed then so large and heavy, a boulder that would crush her.” Both Lore and Frankline sought new lives in New York and both revisit their pasts over the course of Eleven Hours, Lore remembering her single mother and Frankline remembering attending births in Haiti, her family, and the child she lost.
Lore does not agonize over being single and pregnant, but she does think back on coming to New York and meeting her former best friend, a visual artist who remarked that “Beauty… should always have something ugly and off-kilter in it, something true.” This notion could be applied to the event of childbirth as well. While Erens provides the unique stories of these two women, the book, more broadly, is about childbirth in all its agony and glory. And while it is a story as old as humanity itself, each birth is singular with its own intricacies, complications and triumphs. That said, readers who are pregnant should not pick up this book until after their child is born.
Ultimately Eleven Hours is a meditation on the actual, physical feat that is bringing a new life into the world—a woman’s body pushed beyond what she could have imagined no matter how much she tried to prepare for it. That Erens can capture that moment in all its intimacy with grace and such raw, authentic intensity is no small feat in itself.
Amanda Kelley Corbin