Fragments of an identity

December 13, 2020

Julia Alvarez’s latest novel explores notions of cultural assimilation, providing readers with an enriching immigrant narrative

Through her novels, essays and poetry collections, Dominican-American author Julia Alvarez has depicted the immigrant identity as a complex mesh that is informed by social class, gender and ethnicity. Her 1991 novel How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents documents the agonising difficulties faced by four Dominican sisters who settle in the US after fleeing El Jefe’s dictatorship.

Afterlife, Alvarez’s first novel for adults in fifteen years, carries echoes from her earlier novel and builds on notions of cultural assimilation and the fragmentation of personal identity. However, Alvarez’s latest offering mines a different vein of truth about these themes. Set against the backdrop of a distressing post-truth world, Afterlife is woven together with musings on the impact of age on the immigrant experience and identity. This additional dimension allows the novel to examine an older adult’s quest to manage social expectations.

Alvarez’s new novel begins with a glimpse into the grief-stricken mind of Antonia Vega, a retired college professor in a town in Vermont who unexpectedly loses her husband Sam. In an opening sequence titled, Broken English, Alvarez uses a string of fragmented sentences separated by forward-slashes to convey her protagonist’s distress. Conceived as a visceral response that defies the need for grammatical precision or syntax, Broken English presents the state of disarray in Antonia’s life. Fuelled by a sense of urgency, the opening chapter exposes her vulnerabilities and indicates her inability to come to terms with her husband’s death.

The epigraph of Afterlife has been taken from the final stanza of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and sets the tone for Antonia’s painstaking attempts to chalk out a roadmap for her emotional wellbeing. Alvarez’s latest novel reflects her delicate yet daring voyage to put the pieces of her splintered life back together. As the narrative unfolds, Antonia recognises the limitations of language, intimate famìly relationships and identity in guaranteeing survival in a world fraught with despair, loneliness and cruelty.

After her husband’s death, the protagonist struggles to find the courage that had enabled her to deal with the challenges of the past. As a young immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Antonia was trenchantly criticised for speaking “broken English”. Over the decades, she overcame her shortcomings and “ended up teaching Americans their own language”. Faced with Sam’s death, Antonia is pulled deeper into a moral dilemma about her new equation with the world. Widowhood and her status as a retired citizen are the new identities that she has acquired since Sam’s death. In addition, she must also grapple with the stereotypes that are associated with the ethnic group that she belongs to. These composite facets of her identity not only define her but also confine her within specific parameters. In an effort to cultivate a life that accurately represents her desires, Antonia must learn to use her internal plurality as a compass to direct herself amid the uncertainty. At times, her voyage for self-discovery is interrupted by conflict, confusion and anxiety. Even so, Alvarez’s protagonist is able to manoeuvre through these setbacks and gain the consolation that she desires.

Set against the backdrop of a distressing post-truth world, Afterlife is woven together with musings on the impact of age on the immigrant experience and identity. This additional dimension allows the novel to examine an older adult’s quest to manage social expectations.

Throughout the novel, familial ties are considered a form of deterrence against an intolerant world. Antonia’s affinity with her three sisters is a much-needed support mechanism that offers consolation in a distressing hour. But Antonia soon realises that her priorities towards her family collide when the soaring sense of responsibility she feels for those who need her. The idea is sown into her mind when she reluctantly agrees to help Mario, an undocumented worker employed at her neighbour’s dairy farm, bring his girlfriend Estela from Colorado to Vermont. As Antonia develops a maternal bond with Estela, she must find a way to balance the demands of her family with the duties she is morally obliged to perform for others. Her experience as the reluctant caretaker eventually morphs into an explosive discovery about the perils of cross-border migration in the US. Once the narrative steers towards its denouement, Antonia is exposed to the knotty question of power and its deep connection with ideas of mistrust.

Afterlife also represents the futility of language in addressing the cruelties of our times. Antonia relies heavily on literature as a means of coping with the intricacies of her life. A metaphorical wall of words offers comfort in difficult times. Amid the cloud of adversity that surrounds her, Antonia realises that “literature has to pull its weight in the real world or else it’s of no use”. When the firewall of these words is shattered into pieces, she has to teach herself to find beauty in its fragments and live “as if…by metaphor”.

Afterlife provides readers with an enriching immigrant narrative that appears realistic and topical. With its poetic insight into a landscape of loss, the novel builds on the predicaments of our contemporary world. Alvarez’s protagonist is motivated by a relentless quest for answers to complex moral questions. The author provides ample opportunities for Antonia to be drawn into situations that she cannot always handle. As a consequence, she gains the gift of wisdom and is seamlessly steered towards epiphanies that are neither sugar-coated nor entirely difficult to stomach.

Written in rich, atmospheric prose, Afterlife is a moving meditation on the crippling realities of our fragmented world.


Author: Julia Alvarez

Publisher: Algonquin Books

Pages: 256

Price: $17.93

The writer is a freelance journalist and the author of Typically Tanya

Fragments of an identity