Despite her loss, Antonia isn’t alone; she remains close with her three sisters, now scattered across the country. Like so much of Alvarez’s work, “Afterlife” is anchored not just in easy humor and sharp observation, but in her fine-tuned sense for the intimacies of immigrant sisterhood. Unlike her previous novels, however, this one ably tackles the subject of privilege as well. Though their lives in America have been defined by otherness, the Vega sisters have clearly been shielded from the kind of dehumanizing fear and subjugation endured by Mario and Estela.
As Antonia’s life becomes increasingly intertwined with the young migrants’, she suddenly has a new window into the daily menace of law enforcement and the myriad anxieties it gives rise to. Her friendly town sheriff becomes a nagging threat; the neighbors’ nosiness, once harmless, now poses a clear and present danger. But Alvarez is careful not to paint Antonia as a savior; rather than selflessly rising to the occasion, she hems and haws, looking for ways to avoid getting too “involved” with her new friends’ plight, toeing the line between good Samaritan and bystander. “Just because she’s Latina,” Alvarez reminds us, “doesn’t automatically confer on her the personality or inclinations of a Mother Teresa.”
Avoidance and grief soon come to a head when the Vega sisters are confronted with a crisis of their own. En route to an impromptu reunion in Illinois for Antonia’s birthday — “sometimes it feels as if only together are they a whole person” — the oldest sister, Izzy, goes missing. As “Afterlife” builds toward its climax, Antonia travels back and forth between homes and dilemmas, grappling with the specter of her own fractured family as Estela inches toward childbirth. While seeking solace in self-help podcasts and the verses of her favorite poets, the protagonist watches as her concerns for herself, for her family and for others start to bleed together. Antonia abides by convenient platitudes of self-care that insist “you have to start by taking care of yourself,” before eventually recognizing the notion for what it truly is: “the mantra of the first world. First, your own oxygen mask, then everyone else’s.”
Alvarez never goes so far as to suggest how exactly one might correct this social imbalance, or how to reconcile a simultaneous attentiveness to oneself and to others. The world — like Alvarez’s aging characters — is too set in its ways for such swift enlightenment, or change. But “Afterlife” does contain some hope for human empathy: Self-assurance, Antonia finds in the final pages, need not come at another’s expense. Poetry reminds her of the simultaneity of human experience — she can long for someone even in his or her presence; she can be whole even as an absence burns away at her core. After all, Alvarez maintains, at the end of the day all we have to inhabit is our broken selves, and our ever more broken world.