Saturday, April 13, 2013

Review: Life After Life by Jill McCorkle

My grandmother lives in an assisted living and nursing facility. Each of the residents has his or her name on the door to their apartment but each time we go and visit, some of the names have changed. It is a sad fact of life, especially in a nursing home setting, that death is a constant. This place is the final home for almost all of its inhabitants. But here in the wrinkle ranch, the old folk's home, the elder shelter, heaven's waiting room, as much as death is a constant presence, life also goes on, a life after life. Jill McCorkle's much anticipated new novel, Life After Life, is set in just such a place, examining life, death, and the human spirit.

Told in vignette-style stories, the novel focuses on the lives and deaths of the residents, their deceased loved ones, and the staff of Pine Haven Retirement Facility in small town North Carolina. And contrary to popular belief about nursing homes, life at the Pine Haven is not just a monotonous wait for death. There are the same rivalries and friendships inside its walls that add spice to life outside the home. There are contentious residents, sweetly accepting residents, conniving residents, wise residents, angry residents, and contented residents. Their sojourn in the nursing home doesn't change who they are fundamentally.   In many cases, in fact, it distills this essential being, clarifying and sharpening it.

Sadie, a former third grade teacher who taught most of the residents of the town at one time or another, has started a thriving business creating photographs that place her fellow residents all over the world and in the midst of adventures they never took. She knows much of what goes on in the nursing home and offers well-considered, sage advice to those who ask. Rachel, an outsider to the area, harbors a secret she clutches to her heart and which brought her from Boston to this small piece of North Carolina. Stanley is a crotchety old man who seemingly slips in and out of dementia, one moment lucid and courtly and the next shouting and offensive. Joanna is a volunteer at the home who spends her time there sitting with the dying, chronicling people's last words, final moments, and the essence of who they were. She records her observations in her notebook, preserving the memory of each person, keeping them from being forgotten, bearing witness to their life and their death. CJ is a young, tattooed and pierced single mom who has lived a tough life. Best friends with Joanne, she works as Pine Haven's beautician as she tries to build a better life for her little boy. Abby is a lonely child who is all but neglected at home in the wake of her parents' growing unhappiness and anger and is bullied or ignored at school. Her mother is nasty and narcissistic while her father is blind to her emotional neglect so she escapes to Sadie's room and the caring she finds there whenever she can.

The short chapters, told from the perspective of the large ensemble cast, the pages from Joanna's notebook, and the final thoughts of the dying, all build an exquisite character driven novel about secrets and self and the facades we all present to the rest of the world. It's a thought-provoking work about death and letting go but also about life and the living of it right up until the very end. The narrative slowly reveals the stories of each of the characters, what life events created them, and why each of them, resident or not, made his or her way to the nursing home. As ever, McCorkle's writing is magnificent and her characters are just quirky enough to be completely human. There is a poignancy here, as might be expected in a novel so closely tied to the end of life, but it also offers the quiet solace of the eternal, especially through the final, unspoken but conscious thoughts of the dying. Life After Life is understated, reflective, and emotionally pitch perfect until the oddly incongruous and inexplicable ending.  It just doesn't fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.  Over all though, this was a lovely and incredibly enjoyable read despite the unfortunate ending.  It is, generally, a novel to be savored.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of this novel to review.

1 comment:

  1. I use to work at a nursing home so I know all to well how it is in there.Some of the patients(as I called them) practically given up on life.It's kind interesting to read you blog post on such a subject that a lot people don't like to talk about.But,the title and the,excerpt from the book seems very interesting.


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