"You, who quite truly knew him, can quite truly continue in his spirit and on his path. Make it the task of your mourning to explore what he had expected of you, had hoped for you, had wished to happen to you...his influence has not vanished from your existence..."~from The Dark Interval by Rainer Maria RilkeReading about the death of a loved one during the time of Coronavirus is difficult. I feel the cold blade of fear which I daily push back down into my subconscious, then "tie my hat and crease my shawl" to perform my tasks and obligations.
Afterlife is the story of Hispanic retired literature teacher Antonia who mourns the loss of her husband Sam. She struggles to understand how to now live. Her sisters are calling her to join them in confronting their sibling's bipolar illness. An illegal immigrant employed by her Vermont farmer neighbor implores her to help him bring his girl to join him.
All these demands! Antonia just wants to tend her own garden and live with her sorrow. But knowing Sam has changed her. His compassion remains an example of how to live in this world. Sam"seems to be resurrecting inside her," and she wonders, "is this all his afterlife will amount to? Saminspired deeds from the people who love him?"
Antonia's mind is filled with the books she loved and taught, including Rainer Maria Rilke. Last year I had read The Dark Interval which shares Rilke's letters of condolences. Alvarez's novel embodies Rilke's philosophy.
Against her nature and inclination, Sam leads Antonia to risk becoming involved in the lives and problems of other people. "Living your life is a full-time job," a sister justifies. Isn't that the truth? Then, a therapist reads Rilke to the sisters: "Death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves."
Antonia's students always responded to Rilke's poem 'Archaic Torso of Apollo" which ends, "you must change your life." It is a line that has haunted ever me since I first read it. The question, Antonia wonders, is how and when do we change it?
It is a question to be asked over and over. There is no end to such a consideration. We read a book and what we learn reminds us that we must change our life. We see a work of art, Rilke his Greek torso, Antonia Landscape with The Fall of Icarus, or when hear a symphony, or observe a beautiful spring flower or a deep woods filled with birdsong--
All the world is life-changing if we allow ourselves to truly live and open our senses and hearts and minds. To be alive is life-changing. To die is life-changing.
Antonia accepts the challenge to be Saminspired.
Alvarez is a brilliant writer who has combined a deep reflection on existence with timely questions. There is no better time for this message.
I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
The publisher blurb offered,
Afterlife is a compact, nimble, and sharply droll novel. Set in this political moment of tribalism and distrust, it asks: What do we owe those in crisis in our families, including—maybe especially—members of our human family? How do we live in a broken world without losing faith in one another or ourselves? And how do we stay true to those glorious souls we have lost?Read an excerpt from Afterlife
Read Alvarez's essay Living the Afterlife
by Julia Alvarez
Pub Date April 7, 2020
hardcover $25.95 (USD)