Eleven Hours

Pamela Erens

Atlantic, £12.99

Review by Lesley McDowell

AMERICAN writer Pamela Erens’ third novel, about giving birth, is a hard-hitting riposte to the idea that war is the greatest of all themes. War pre-occupies the ‘greats’ from Homer to Tolstoy. It can be intimate and short like Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms or epic, like Ford Madox Ford’s trilogy Parade’s End. With a few exceptions, like Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, or A L Kennedy’s Day, it is also written by men.

Pamela Erens’ latest novel does not tackle war but it does provide the most vivid, visceral and extraordinary account of a woman going through labour. The blood and guts of the great war novel? It’s here, too. War’s delicate, terrifying balance between life and death? All present. The unlikely comradeship that life-and-death situations foster in wartime? Ditto. The majesty and the misery of war are fully present in this novel about a woman in labour. Birth, her novel argues, is the greatest theme. And it is women’s experience alone.

Lore Tannenbaum is a thirty-one-year old white woman admitted to a New York maternity ward when her contractions begin. The nurse assigned to her is Haiti-born Franckline, who is herself in the early stages of pregnancy. The two women are almost the same age, but there the similarity in their backgrounds and experiences appears to end. Lore is on her own. Her father abandoned her and her mother when she was little. Lore’s mother died of cancer when she was a young woman, and this event sent her to the city. She works in speech therapy, and the father of her child is Asa, who has left her for another woman, Julia. It was Julia who introduced Lore and Asa to one another. But Julia and Asa had a past, and their feelings resurfaced, pushing Lore out.

Franckline left her Haitian home after getting pregnant accidentally at the age of eighteen. The baby died but her family could not forgive her and so she, too, came to the city alone. Here, she met her future husband, Bernard. They have been trying for a child, but a previous pregnancy ended in miscarriage and now she is terrified that she will not carry this new baby to term. She still hasn’t told Bernard that she is pregnant. She has taught herself English and used her childhood skills as a midwife – she learned how to aid births when she was very young – to get a good job in this hospital. She takes nothing for granted although she does make assumptions about Lore and her background when she first meets her.

These two women are effectively placed in the trenches together. All around Lore, it seems, are the sounds of women in pain. Franckline knows how closely some of these women come to disaster in the moment of giving birth, how closely some of them come to losing their own lives as well as those of their babies. Her calmness in extremity, however, wins out. Only she can tell Lore how to manage the pain of contractions. Yet the pain is still overwhelming: “Where does breath come from? Oh, help me! – until her lungs grasp of their own accord, a quick, inefficient gasp that Lore grabs by the tail and expands, and then there is time for another breath, a long one now, and a long deep moan. But the moan this time is not simply a moan of will and pain but a call into the emptiness: Is anyone there? There is a blackness spreading into her vision and she feels herself spinning in an unlit sky…”

Erens’ decision to use a direct third person narrative voice gives us the kind of immediacy we, as readers, benefit from when death-defying situations are described. She takes us not only into the labour room but into Lore’s mind and body as she slowly approaches the moment of birth; she takes us deep inside Franckline’s consciousness as she feels the beat of her own developing foetus. The drama of birth is not side-stepped, either. This is an immensely powerful, cannot-look-away novel of heart and bone and muscle and blood. The war novel has a rival, and it is breathtaking.