REVIEW: Life and death in new McCorkle novel

'Life After Life' reveals human truths
Apr. 20, 2013 @ 05:09 PM

“Life After Life” by Jill McCorkle (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, hardcover, $24.95)

After reading a Jill McCorkle novel or short story, you feel like you know the characters well enough that you could sit down at lunch with them and pick up conversations where McCorkle left off.
In the Hillsborough author’s newest novel, “Life After Life,” we meet quite the crew of characters – as in “she’s a real character” – at a retirement home.
Like Stanley, the retired lawyer who fakes dementia to avoid his son. And Rachel, the widowed New Englander who moved South because of a romanticized love affair. And then there’s Sadie at the center, the one you’d want for a friend. Their stories are like a series of portraits woven together, each character’s life threaded with the next at Pine Haven, some touching all along the seams, some existing simply as neighbors. Pine Haven’s actual neighbors are a cemetery and 12-year-old Abby, who finds more wisdom and friendship in the retirement home than her actual home. Her mother, Kendra, is just plain atrocious and her dad, Ben, an amateur magician in a contentious marriage. Ben grew up with Joanna, who is now a hospice volunteer at Pine Haven. Joanna is there for a person’s last moments and in the immediate aftermath – some we meet, some we don’t.
McCorkle captures what must be the moments before we let go, before the hospice worker finishes her job, before we leave this earth. She brings readers to the bedside. It’s with some sadness but not entirely that we are literary witness to what’s happening.
At an Algonquin Books party celebrating McCorkle’s novel in November, the author said “Life After Life” came together last year when she had a semester off from teaching at N.C. State University. She had the time to spread it out and put it together, literally, on the floor of her office.
“Life After Life” doesn’t wrap up in a nice bow leaving you content like the Pine Haven cat, Harvey, when he finds a loving lap. The stories leave you a little unnerved, having sampled the dark underbelly of humanity as well as plenty of goodness. McCorkle brings her characters to life not with sweeping generalities about their personalities, but instead revealing who each one is through a moment, a memory, even verbal sparring over a meal. She can see into the hearts of people and air truths. Read “Life After Life” to find out more about, well, life. Death, too.

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WHERE: The Regulator Bookshop
720 Ninth St., Durham
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WHERE: McIntyre’s Fine Books at Fearrington Village
220 Market St., Pittsboro