Even before becoming a hospice volunteer, Joanna Lamb learned that there are many ways people can disappear: through death, divorce, drugs; through finding themselves or, too often, from losing their way. Every end, however, brings hope and a new beginning, which author Jill McCorkle shows through protagonist Joanna and throughout “Life After Life.”
Dedicated to documenting the memories of dying patients because “everyone deserves a last page,” Joanna and the Pine Haven Retirement Center where she spends her days sit at the center of this unsparing novel and its ensemble of heartbreakingly real characters. Among them: Stan, a former lawyer, who pretends to have dementia to get away from his son; Marge, who keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings on local grisly murders; retired teacher Sadie, who believes that we are all 8-year-olds at heart; and unhappily married and unfaithful Ben, who runs an old movie theater.
Ben uses magic tricks to try to connect with his distant daughter. Through McCorkle’s stark and stunning prose, readers also learn that Ben was Sadie’s favorite student and Joanna’s best childhood friend — two of the many connections between characters that McCorkle reveals slowly and to the reader’s satisfaction.
A desire to explore why people feel such a strong need to connect — even in the final moments of life — was one of the reasons McCorkle wrote this sixth novel, she said. “I think we are all like those old antenna contraptions that used to perch on rooftops, turning and turning to pick up signals in hopes of making a connection and finding clarity,” McCorkle wrote in an author’s statement. She said she was compelled to find her own clarity after her mentally ill father died and her mother developed dementia. The incidents, she said, made her wonder: “Who was this person and what is left?”
In “Life After Life,” McCorkle makes clear that asking these questions can lead to devastating answers and, in some cases, not liking the “who” left before you. What matters, however, is not liking, but loving, she shows. What matters is connecting, accepting and, especially at the end, being willing to give or take a second chance.
Many endings occur in “Life After Life,” and not all of them happy. Yet McCorkle shows that even when death is just a few breaths away, surprising new connections and beginnings can occur through the magic of memories and love.
McCorkle has crafted a story and characters that readers won’t soon forget.
Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.