I was attracted to the premise of Pamela Erens’ slim, third novel before I remembered that I’d already read her second, The Virgins, set against the backdrop of a New England school rife with speculation about the golden couple of its senior year. Eleven Hours is entirely different. The titular hours are the length of Lore’s labour attended by Franckline, the midwife assigned to her. Erens explores the relationship that forms between these two very different women from Lore’s admittance to the hospital to a few hours after the birth.
Lore arrives unaccompanied but with a comprehensive birth plan which Franckline discreetly tosses aside. Her years of experience have taught her that the birth rarely follows a plan, no matter how detailed it may be. Lore is in the early stages of labour but the night’s slow enough for her to be given a private room. Franckline is from Haiti, fascinated by the process of birth since she was six years old but beset by difficulties with her own dreams of having children. She’s in the early stages of a third pregnancy and has yet to tell her husband, too anxious to share her news in case something goes wrong. Lore is pretty much alone in the world but determined to bring this child up well. Soleil, as she’s chosen to call the baby not knowing if it’s a boy or a girl, is the child of Asa, the lover she met through her friend Julia. All three had become entangled in a relationship until it became clear that Asa and Julia had become lovers again. These two women are engaged in something that happens everywhere, every day: one helping the other through the pain and sheer hard graft of childbirth, each of them entering their own reveries in the increasingly brief periods of calm.
Eleven Hours is a short, extraordinarily intense novel. Flitting backwards and forwards between Lore and Franckline, Erens unfolds these two women’s stories through the memories, reflections, worries and observations which take up their thoughts between the comings and goings of doctors and the contractions which Franckline supports and encourages Lore through. Her writing is often striking – Lore ‘has flung her pain into this public space, not caring who observed it’ – and sometimes funny: ‘you were supposed to relax and breathe, but she soon discovered it felt much better to pull hard at the pipes and curse loudly’ thinks Lore, lying on her bathroom floor. The deeply intimate yet ephemeral relationship of these two women is acutely observed and tenderly portrayed. It’s harrowing at times, and nail-biting towards the end, but Erens spares us from excessively graphic description. It’s an impressive piece of fiction which vividly conveys the uniqueness of every birth despite its almost prosaic occurrence. I enjoyed The Virgins, but this is much better.