In the eleven hours it takes to deliver a baby, the parallel stories of two women unfold. New Yorker Lore, composed and as prepared as a woman can be for labour, with a comprehensive and instructional birth plan; Franckline, her Haitian midwife, drawn to the mysteries of childbirth even before she reached adolescence.
Pamela Erens condenses these eleven hours into a novel of the same name, a slim but compelling 165-page read that offers a window to the events that have led to their meeting in the delivery ward.
‘A story I will never fully hear, even if she offers it to me,’ thinks Franckline, ‘and it’s the body that concerns us here today.’
Franckline is right. The insistent rhythms of Lore’s labour take centre stage, and Erens, who has also authored The Virgins and The Understory, is unflinching in her descriptions.
‘A good universe could not include the forcing of her child half inch by half inch down the birth canal, its soft head squeezed misshapen by the hugging walls; could not include her own grotesque and agonised prying-open,’ muses Lore between contractions, one of many she will experience.
Erens describes them all with a growing intensity, bringing home the gruelling yet infinitely rewarding experience of human creation, a shared experience that bonds women around the world.
Indeed, as her contractions grow more frequent Lore is forced to lower her prickly defences and rely on Franckline, clutching the midwife’s smaller frame, smelling the ‘subtle, spicy odour’ of her skin.
The physical intimacy of the two women is mirrored by their maternal journeys, a longing for their unborn children, for Franckline is pregnant as well and this is one of the many revelations that unfold during these eleven hours. Bit by bit we learn about the two women; inch by inch the baby crowns. The suspense simmers.
As she reveals her two protagonists Erens alternates between Lore and Franckline’s perspectives, though never in a confusing way, just an easy slipping between two women who have both experienced their own versions of loss, betrayal and heartbreak.
To this end, Erens is light-handed with the details, leaving out the minutiae essential for character development, painting the picture of their lives in broad strokes. Consequently the supporting cast - Franckline’s husband, who longs for a child; Lore’s former partner Asa and her best friend Julia - are less fleshed out, their motivations less realistic.
But they will not matter in the last quarter of the novel as, after hours of waiting, Lore’s carefully-detailed birth plan disintegrates swiftly in a race against time. The suspense finally boils over in Eleven Hours’ breathtaking conclusion, a gripping and unlikely reminder of the miracle that is childbirth.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.