Tag Archives: The Virgins

Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens: Hard labour

Cover imageI 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.

The Virgins: When things aren’t quite what they seem

The VirginsPamela Erens’ second novel comes with not one but two glowing quotes from John Irving’s New York Times Book Review piece on the cover. I’m amazed that even the New York Times can persuade an author of Irving’s lofty stature to review a book but clearly they have an impressive literary editor. It’s set in Irving’s own New England stomping ground at a prep school full of kids whose parents are bent on a glowing future for their offspring no matter how troubled and complicated their own lives have become. One such is the narrator, Bruce Bennett-Jones, now a theatre director who is looking back to the events of 1979. Every year the senior boys scrutinise the new girls as they arrive, avid for the possibility of sexual opportunity. Aviva, extraordinarily dressed in a split-skirted purple dress and high heels, catches everyone’s eye. She soon becomes involved with Seung, the son of strict Korean parents. Athletic, popular, the overseer of his dorm, he’s a boy who knows how to bend the rules and how not to get caught. They quickly become a golden couple: attractive, utterly besotted and open enough about it for every student at Auburn Academy to fantasise enviously about what they get up to, not least Bruce who has conceived an obsession for Aviva. But is their relationship all that it’s assumed to be?

I wasn’t at all sure I was going to like The Virgins – a couple of scenes of clumsy, over excited adolescent intimacy and I’d begun to worry that the entire novel would follow the same pattern – however Erens gradually draws you in, engaging your sympathy for her characters: very early on we know things are not going to turn out well for Aviva and Seung. Bruce is our guide to Auburn Academy, his unpleasantness established right from the start with his description of the Jewish Aviva as ‘one of those’. The suffocating atmosphere of a boarding school where everything becomes magnified, all perspective lost amidst the burgeoning adolescent sexuality and experimentation is vividly and skilfully evoked. Although we’re prepared for an unhappy ending the final twist when it comes is utterly shocking. Not a comfortable read then, but a thoroughly absorbing one.