Life After Life

  • Jill McCorkle
  • A Shannon Ravenel Book
  • 352 pp.

In the author’s latest novel, lives connect poignantly as death looms near in a North Carolina retirement community.

Death looms large in Jill McCorkle’s new novel, Life After Life, which focuses on eight characters who live in and around a retirement community in the fictional town of Fulton, N.C., where McCorkle has set much of her previous work. Four of the main characters are residents of the retirement home — two work there and two live nearby. All have a story that has brought them to where they are now. As their stories unfold, the line between past and present blurs. And what about the future? Are we ever really done with life? Are we ever really gone? These are the provocative questions raised by this deftly written small-town saga.

Joanna, a hospice volunteer at the retirement home, is our guide to the life-and-death mysteries the novel explores. As a young woman she left Fulton and her rigid parents, and once tried to kill herself. In one of the twists at which McCorkle is adept, the man who saved her life was himself dying. Under Luke’s tutelage, Joanna began to heal her own psychic wounds and learned the hospice work that occupies her now. “Make their exits as gentle and loving as possible,” Luke said. He also told her to keep a journal of the last words and memories of the dying. “Keep us close … Keep us alive. Don’t ever let us disappear.” Joanna’s journal entries chart the course of the novel. 

For a book in which there is so much death, Life After Life is the opposite of lugubrious. It is full of subplots and contrivances and humor. It includes a character, Sadie, so mannerly and decent that her own children begged her to fart to prove she wasn’t an alien. Sadie taught third grade for 40 years and believes most adults are eight-year-olds at heart, “fragile and wanting.” Though wheelchair bound, much of her time is now spent dealing out positive thinking to her fellow residents at Pine Haven, as she used to do to her third graders. One of her methods is to give them a fantasy trip by taking their photograph and pasting it on a picture of a place they would like to go — Rome, Paris, the Taj Mahal, an old beach hotel. Toby Tyler, another former teacher, wants to be pasted on the back of a horse as a jockey. Sadie glues herself into a picture of her mother, who died when Sadie was four. 

A number of characters are haunted by their mothers, C.J. most of all. Her mother was the beautiful, dirt-poor Perri Loomis in McCorkle’s 1990 novel Ferris Beach (also set in Fulton), who became a prostitute and ended by killing herself. C.J., 25, her own dark beauty adorned by lip and nose rings and spiky hair, finds herself in the same business as her mother. “She was never standing on street corners. … She was in a motel waiting for some very well-respected white-collar big deal about town.” Now she wants out, which is why she’s working at the retirement home, washing residents’ hair and doing their nails, though the job doesn’t pay enough to sustain her and her baby, which is why she’s not all the way out, yet.

C.J. is the key player in the mystery plot that runs through the novel, just as Sadie is the anchor that binds together the characters. She is the solace for 12-year-old Abby, who lives on the other side of the cemetery adjoining Pine Haven. Abby’s father, Ben, is Sadie’s all-time favorite pupil as well as Joanna’s best friend from childhood, when they performed magic shows in which he made her disappear. 

Sadie remembers the charming, intelligent lawyer that Stanley Stone used to be and wonders at the demented person he has become in old age, as does Rachel Silverman. A former Boston lawyer, Rachel moved south when her husband died, to the hometown of a man with whom she had a long affair. She wanted to be near her lover, and she is — he is buried in the cemetery next door. She goes and talks to him every day.

Mysteries and secrets abound. Enigmatic notes are left on gravestones. Rachel hides the reason she came to Pine Haven. C.J. keeps secrets from her best friend Joanna. Kendra, Abby’s awful, self-absorbed mother, hides her role in the disappearance of Abby’s beloved dog. The only open book is Sadie and she is fading fast.

The author of five previous novels and four story collections, McCorkle is a master at crisscrossing lives and interweaving plots. And she is not afraid of the dark. Violent deaths occur often in her novels: Ferris Beach features two; Carolina Moon begins with a letter to a suicide. Life After Life is no exception. What she really shows us, however, is not death but life, how it goes on, no matter what, and ultimately, she convinces us the way a magician does: so much is happening the reader can’t help but be dazzled. “Now you see her, now you don’t. Then poof — abracadabra! She’s right before your eyes.”

Kate Blackwell’s collection of stories, You Won’t Remember This, was published in 2007 by Southern Methodist University Press. She lives in Washington, D.C., and in Neavitt, Md.

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