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Likely Stories: Afterlife by Julia Alvarez


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Julia Alvarez is an amazing writer.  Julia has an impressive collection of literary rewards.  In 2013, President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts in recognition of her extraordinary storytelling. 


Afterlife is a powerful story of a woman, Antonia, who finds herself retired from a career as a teacher of English.  Then, her husband suddenly dies, her sister disappears, and she is faced with a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep.  Julia writes, “She is keeping to her routines, walking a narrow path through the loss—not allowing her thoughts to stray.  Occasionally, she takes sips of sorrow, afraid the big wave might wash her away.  Widows leaping into a husband’s pyre, mothers jumping into a child’s grave.  She has taught those stories. // Today, like every other day, you wake up empty and frightened, she quotes to herself as she looks in the mirror in the morning.  Her beloved Rumi no longer able to plug the holes. // Late afternoons as the day wanes, in bed in the middle of the night, in spite of her efforts, she finds herself at the out edge where, in the old maps, the world drops off, and beyond is terra incognita, sea serpents, the Leviathan—HERE THERE BE DRAGONS” (6).

Antonia has three sisters, and they are all closely bonded together.  Antonia, Izzy, Mona, Tilly make up the group.  Julia writes, “Actually, all the sisters have followed Izzy’s lead […]  assigned [a] ring tone to Antonia.  The secret got out.  The secrets always get out in the sisterhood.  Our Lady of Pronouncements, Mona said by way of explanation.  Good old Mo-mo, no hairs on her tongue—one of their mother’s Dominican sayings.  Tilly was kinder.  Sort of.  It’s because you started going to Sam’s church.  It’s how Tilly used to describe their denomination, to avoid using the word Christian.  Now she avoids Sam’s name.  Your church.  As if Antonia would forget that Sam is gone unless someone reminds her” (7).

Antonia’s new life as a widow forces her to adapt to new circumstances.  Julia writes, “Later that morning, there’s a knock at the door.  Antonia checks the peephole, a new habit she’s not likely to break since she is alone.  She can just make out a head of glossy black hair.  Mario, one of the Mexican workers next door.  She opens to the boy-size man, his soft brown skin unusual in pale-faced Vermont.  Rare also for Antonia to feel tall in this country.  For a moment she understands the self-assurance of those who can look down at another’s face” (12-13).

Julia Alvarez’s Afterlife is an outstanding example of some of the best fiction available today.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!


Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.