Life After Life
In Jill McCorkle’s “Life After Life,” hospice worker Joanna Lamb chronicles the deaths of the people in her care in the fictional Fulton, N.C. Chased by her own ghosts from New England back to North Carolina, she sees the gift that is a gentle death and finds peace in helping others achieve it.
But death and the ghosts of past mistakes are only a small slice of the equation. The residents of Fulton’s Pine Haven retirement community are squarely in Shakespeare’s sixth stage of life – no longer independent but not yet in need of Joanna’s services. They have current interests, foibles, relationships and opinions.
The handful of elderly residents is complemented by younger small-town peers: Abby, a 12-year-old girl who would rather hang out with retirees than her classmates; Kendra and Ben, Abby’s frustrated-magician father and socially ambitious mother; and C.J., the young beautician and single mom.
McCorkle deftly captures the incestuous timbre of small-town life. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, or thinks they do. What makes the story truly hum, however, is how we gradually find out what they don’t know about each other. These secrets have roots in the past and significant present-day implications.
We learn about Joanna’s suicide attempt, C.J.’s work cleaning houses for Fulton’s elite. Sadie’s knack for taking photos and using scissors and glue to create the illusion of a dream vacation in Paris. Stanley’s fake dementia. Abby’s grief over her missing dog. Kendra’s inventory of furniture she’ll claim in the divorce she’s furtively planning.
These small circles widen into a veritable 3-D Venn diagram as the distinct narratives grow and intersect.
Kendra and C.J. share a tie without knowing it. Rachel, a retired lawyer, learns more than she bargained for when she moves to her late lover’s hometown. Stanley’s fake dementia is in danger of being exposed. And as Sadie slips quietly into Shakespeare’s seventh stage of life, Abby realizes she must find an ally elsewhere.
McCorkle depicts the typical small town in broad strokes, largely through the outsiders’ lens. Rachel bemoans the sweet-tea gentility so far removed from her urban, liberal past. Retired schoolteacher Toby loves challenging the Fulton status quo as espoused by the grumpy busybody Marge.
Conversely, the book deals with old age and dying with great nuance and sensitivity, never reducing the aging characters to their aches and pains. The chapters’ alternating perspectives yield layer after layer of wisdom, particularly in the brief first-person narratives of those near death.
Most people who have had a loved one shift from vibrant maturity to decline know it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of one of life’s greatest trials. McCorkle steps back and contemplates what she sees as a bit of an interstitial space between life and death – “in hopes of finding that split moment when the reader is aware of both planes – what those left on earth are recalling and what the one leaving is thinking, that brief spark of connection and recognition before the paths continue in different directions,” she wrote for The Algonquin Reader.
While the lineup of Pine Haven residents involves a variety of “types,” most are finely drawn and compelling in their strengths and weaknesses.
The book’s denouement plays on Ben’s big magic trick: the disappearing chamber. Two major characters die, one unexpectedly. The deaths are abrupt and little is revealed about the other characters’ responses to them. Joanna, whose job is to help families navigate death, finds herself at a loss – too many questions and zero answers.
“Now you see her, now you don’t,” she muses in summation, likening death, or perhaps our responses to it, to a grand illusion. But “Life After Life” offers a steady gaze at people’s flaws and merits, without apology and without tidy conclusions.
Michelle Moriarity Witt is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.