By Pamela Erens
Tin House Books: May 3, 2016
$15.95, 165 pages
Childbirth is a contradictory experience. It is both indelibly etched in the mother’s mind and, with time, a blur of physical and emotional extremity. Some have compared it to war. Pamela Erens has done an impressive job of capturing one woman’s labor and delivery in her fever dream of a novel, Eleven Hours, which follows a 31-year-old New York City resident named Lore Tannenbaum from her admission to the hospital’s maternity ward through to the birth of her child.
Erens has also done readers everywhere a favor. Eleven Hours bears witness to the extraordinary efforts of mothers in bringing forth a child. It is a testament to the dedication and compassion of labor and delivery nurses. And for men it provides an opportunity to fully grasp the all-encompassing nature of the experience.
But her book is not a documentary, it is a story. And at its heart is Lore, a single mother still reeling from the traumatic ending of her relationship with her child’s father, Asa. She comes to the hospital one winter night utterly alone, something the nurse, Franckline, originally from Haiti, notices immediately. Lore has a birth plan detailing her exacting wishes in all potential situations. She is a daunting young woman who says little and keeps Franckline at arm’s length. But the latter is also pregnant and worried about her baby for reasons both universal and specific, and she is determined to help Lore make it through the crucible of labor and delivery.
Erens slowly reveals each woman’s story, all the while holding us close to Lore’s labor. She reminds us how amazing it is that complete strangers come together in the most intimate of experiences, all to bring a baby into the world. Lore and Franckline have led completely different lives, yet they are united in their womanhood and, ultimately, shared motherhood.
“Lore’s forehead is hot; her stomach churns threateningly. The sensation gradually passes, and her eyes flutter closed. In a couple of minutes she wakes, feeling calm. She turns her head. Franckline is sitting quietly by the bed, her hands folded. Lore fixes on the nurse’s cross, a small gold piece hanging from a gold chain. She again has the impulse to ask Franckline about herself but she is tired, she thinks she won’t be able to listen, and besides, stories are too hard, are almost always convoluted and do not tell the thing you really want to know. What she wants to know is what Franckline does in the moments when she despairs. Does she ever despair? Surely–that cross–she prays, and praying is something Lore does not believe in, or even know how to do.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Eleven Hours is the way Erens has captured the stream of consciousness of Lore, as she moves from the present to the past (a fraught childhood and a complex love triangle that led her to this moment) and the future (concern about her child and the possible lives they will have together). As the narrative moves along, no notice is given and no typographical aid indicates the shift in time and place. We are deep in Lore’s mind as she attempts to cope with a set of circumstances–past, present, and future–she never envisioned.
Of course, Erens vividly depicts labor. Although I have been present for the birth of my two sons, I watched it from the outside. My wife was not sharing her innermost thoughts and feelings in real time. Eleven Hours allowed me to get inside the physical experience of labor. Here are two examples of how Erens puts the reader directly in the moment.
“Another contraction. Though Lore focuses as usual on her voice, on expelling sound as the pain rises, she has the sensation this time of standing slightly outside of herself, and she is aware, now, of other sounds in the room: the speeded-up heartbeat the monitor broadcasts (lub-lub-lub-lub-lub-lub-lub), Franckline’s deep, heavy breathing as she presses hard into Lore’s back…
“The next contraction arrives, and once again she has no time to do anything but lie back and draw up her legs and bear down with the frightful pressure. It is no baby pressing now, but something else, alien and with damage on its mind. There is nothing proper to hold onto–not Franckline’s shoulder or back, not the pillows, which are at the end of the bed; she can only grip her own knees, infuriated, ignoring Franckline’s exhortations to draw in her breath and groan. Rebelliously, she screams, knowing that it will only waste her strength and rake her throat, knowing that screaming is for the weak and out of control, and that some other woman in another room will hear her and be frightened. When her breath comes back a bit she curses and bucks from side to side, protesting pain’s fingerprints on her body. Franckline leans over her, instructing quietly, ‘Try to stay still,’ and Lore shouts, ‘I need it to come out I need to push,’ and Franckline says, ‘Push then,’ and Lore pushes, her feet trembling, her fingers gouging into her knees. She strains with all her might until she genuinely expects to see a baby flop out on the sheet beneath her, until the pressure retreats enough to let her loosen her grip and lower her buttocks to the mattress.”
Lore’s labor progresses (fitfully and frustratingly) until it reaches the expected climax of delivery, and the climax of the novel. It is a heart-pounding, even frightening, moment because, like Lore and Franckline, we do not really know how things will turn out, for Lore or her baby.
Eleven Hours is a potent, life-affirming, and necessary novel about one of life’s most primal experiences. Reading it is an experience I recommend to everyone.
Photo of Pamela Erens: Kathryn Huang