There are any number of ways to interpret and dissect just the title of Life After Life by Jill McCorkle (let alone the rest of the book), so much so that it’s a real pleasure to unravel the different possible meanings as you read, teasing out every possible nuance as you realize the sheer brilliance at work. Like a good English major, I could expound at length on all the layers within layers of the title, but 1) no one needs to hear my insane ramblings on ephemera, and 2) that would take all the fun out of things.
The novel centers around a few specific residents of the small town of Fulton, North Carolina, and especially those connected to the Pine Haven Retirement Center. Many of the characters dwell in the threshold between life and death, and are intimately aware of this fact, differing only in their approaches and attitudes. With one or two exceptions, the rest of this incredible cast purposely choose to attach themselves to Pine Haven and its inhabitants, to this liminal space, for a variety of reasons, which are not always the ones you might expect.
Taken as a whole, Life After Life is a complex, insightful look at the intricacies of life and human nature. Everyone has a story to tell, and sometimes more than one. There are so many secrets, so many lives tied together and tangled up with each other, often without the knowledge of those involved. Even those characters who at first seem to be one-dimensional, almost caricatures, are revealed to have hidden depths. Everyone, even the most unlikeable, has at least some spark of goodness, some tinge of humanity that redeems them and makes them bearable. The truly admirable characters are those examining the world and people around them, and seeing clearly through the lies and illusions we all surround ourselves with. Even so, even the most well-meaning are often spectacularly blind at times, even to those they are closest to – and therein lies the tragedy of life.
The story is told in a series of overlapping and intertwined narratives, in both first and third person, giving voices to an incredibly wide range of people. It is the wonderful characters who make the novel, filling it with warmth and light and heart. Twelve-year-old Abby spends almost all her free time at Pine Haven, to escape from her parents’ painful marriage and her isolation at school, soaking up wisdom and affection from her only friends. Joanna Lamb, a woman who left Fulton at a young age and returned home upon the death of her mother, has reinvented herself over and over again, and now finds her true calling as a hospice volunteer, recording the stories of the dying. C.J., the hair and nail technician at Pine Haven, raises her son while enjoying her unlikely friendship with Joanna and dropping clues to her many secrets with a frequent I’ll tell you someday. Retired teachers Toby and Sadie are very different women yet are united in the love of their students, passion for life and determination to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of gestures. They are what every teacher should aspire to be, and what every student should hope for and appreciate. Former New York lawyer Rachel Silverman keeps the real reason for her inexplicable move to Fulton an unspoken mystery, hugging it close to her chest. There are many, many more, each richly developed, but these are my favorites, the ones that really resonated with me.
Of the characters whose voices we do hear, there is only one I found it utterly impossible to like. Abby’s mother, Kendra, is almost too obviously a villain, and yet she is far more complicated than she first appears. Even as you despise the woman for the havoc she wreaks on everyone around her, you cannot help but pity her, trapped as she is in a prison of her own making, with no hope of escape. Happiness is something that will always elude her, because she spends her life chasing after things she can’t have, never appreciating what she already possesses.
McCorkle has crafted an exquisitely bittersweet tale, echoing with themes of reinvention and renewal. It is an exhortation to live life fully, open to the possibility of change. We all live many different lives within the span on one existence, constantly morphing over time and leaving the shells of our past behind even as they continue to haunt and inform us. There are no neat and tidy endings, no happy resolutions. Only death can wrap up the story, and even then, there are plenty of things left unsolved, unsaid, unknown, unpredictable. Life … goes on.