It seems a shame to me that Jill McCorkle's first novel in 17 years shares a title with Kate Atkinson's new book. It's like showing up to prom only to find the more popular girl at school is wearing the same dress as you. It doesn't mean you don't look gorgeous in your dress; it's just somehow deflating before you even get started. Similarly, I have a friend whose cousin had a baby just a few months after her son, William, was born. The cousin's baby's name: William. That's awkward, right?
Not awkward, however, is Jill McCorkle's writing, and her book, her Life After Life, is worthy of every song of praise. She is a gifted writer, who has written a wildly creative novel about life and end-of-life without being macabre or heavy-handed. She deftly draws us in, just as we all do to one another, by introducing us to the idiosyncrasies of an unforgettable cast of characters. Life After Life requires the same willingness to be vulnerable that real human (and animal) relationships do and makes us thankful for each time we consent.
Life After Life is a multi-vocal novel which focuses on the residents and visitors to the Pine Haven Retirement Center. One of those voices, Joanna, is a hospice volunteer who witnesses death after death and tries to honor and preserve the memory of each one. Another is Abby, a young girl who considers the residents of Pine Haven her dearest friends. There is humor and sadness in equal measure, just as there is youth and age, death and life. Here McCorkle writes about what it was like to develop this novel. I love this essay. Maybe it's because I'm losing a grandmother to Cancer and a grandfather to dementia and my parents to the care of them both. Maybe it's because of the vivid imagery she calls to mind (especially that dogwood named after Aunt Lottie). Or maybe it's just because Jill McCorkle is good. She is real, real good.
Just like each of us, the book is imperfect, but it is lovely. The part I take issue with is the end, and though I won't reveal any of what actually takes place, I will say it moves too quickly over important and dramatic material and denies the characters the depth they deserve at the last. That, too, could be part of the beauty of the book, though, for how often do we find ourselves at the end of a loved one's life wishing we had more time, had asked more questions, knew more of what he or she was really thinking, feeling? Though the ending was a disappointment for me, it was still an important book and one I highly recommend. If for no other reason, you should read this book to meet the incomparable Sadie, an 85-year-old former schoolteacher, who shares wisdom at every opportunity, such as, "Learning and facing language teaches children to learn and face other things as well" (30).
Ever since I heard McCorkle tell us all about "Cuss Time" at the Celebration of Southern Literature, I have been more than a fan. You can read her essay by the same name at The American Scholar. In it, she combines humor, truth, and a healthy heaping of intelligent, persuasive rhetoric. McCorkle is fabulous and unfortunately not widely read outside of the Southern Literature circle, but y'all, that is a mistake. Life After Life is the next book you should pick up. To help you along, Algonquin is giving away a signed copy of Life After Life - go enter here before the end of the month. And when you love it, I hope you will help spread the word about this Life After Life. It may have fewer friends in high places, but it is no less worthy of attention.