Fiction Review: “Life After Life” by Jill McCorkle

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In the first chapter of Jill McCorkle’s beautiful and humane new novel—her first in seventeen years—a hospice volunteer quietly witnesses a daughter become full of sad wonder in the moments of her elderly mother’s death. “She sits smoothing her mother’s hair, shaking her head in disbelief that she is here in this moment. How can it be? Her expression seems to ask. It’s an ordinary Friday morning…”  Later, the volunteer—Joanna, a fortyish single woman scarred by her turbulent past—will record her private memories of this woman whose deathbed, among others, she has tended at the Pine Haven retirement center in the small town of Fulton, North Carolina. This is the way she will keep them close, the people whose hands she has held at the end. These notebook entries are woven throughout the book along with short, vivid scenes that put us in the mind of each person as he or she passes away: fragments, emotions, memories. There is often a quiet grace note of overlap between the two realms—a word, a touch—and one of the deep pleasures of this novel is the deft way McCorkle creates this bridge, a connection between those who leave and those who stay behind.

Life at Pine Haven is a rich panoply of intertwined stories and people who have known each other for decades.  With chapters interwoven in a choral pattern, besides Joanna, we come to know Sadie, who is slowly fading away but never forgets a student from her forty years teaching third grade; Stanley Stone, who is faking dementia in order to avoid painful conversations with his troubled son; Rachel, a widow from Boston who has retired in Fulton because of an affair she had many years ago; and C.J., the young tattooed single mother who tends residents at Pine Haven’s beauty salon. What “happens” in this novel is both nothing much… and everything. Days proceed in a retirement center simultaneously with unchanging routine—meals, naps, crafts—and the threat of sudden irrevocable change: not only the ever-present possibility of death but loss of memory, or physical ability. Sadie, beloved of all residents and staff, tries to help a young runaway. Rachel is the only one who can see past Stanley’s offensive performance to who he might be. C.J. and Joanna lean on each other, trading favors and trusting in their friendship. We learn the stories of these people’s lives, the everyday mistakes and great loves and missed chances, and what brought them here to Fulton.

It’s hard to describe how a novel about the end of life can be so, well, funny. But if you’ve read any of McCorkle’s previous work—including her brilliant short story collections—you know exactly what I’m talking about. Nobody does voice like Jill McCorkle, whether she is inside the head of a gold-digger cheating-wife mega-bitch or a sassy yoga-loving retiree. Here C.J. remembers her house-cleaning days less-than-fondly: “One [creep] followed her to the kitchen and down the basement stairs where the wine was kept. ‘I’ve never made love in a wine cellar to a beautiful young woman,’ he slurred, and she told him that today wasn’t looking so fucking good either.” Twelve year-old “Abby wishes her mother would wear mom pants, some nice high-waisted stretch denim mom pants. But no, her mom wears low rise.” The language of real life—ragged, hilarious, true—is threaded through a narrative that dares to look directly at a universal experience we fear or distract ourselves from thinking about.

“Life After Life” is a hugely generous novel, one that recognizes the ordinary failures and great triumphs of regular people confronting the messiness and revelations of life, from beginning to end. (Emily Gray Tedrowe)

“Life After Life”
by Jill McCorkle
A Shannon Ravenel Book, 352 pages, $24.95

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