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May 22, 2013

Book: Fresh memories and old notes

Jill McCorkle weaves stories both sad and happy in ‘Life After Life’

‘Life After Life’
By Jill McCorkle. Algonquin Books; 352 pgs., $24.95.

Told from multiple points of view, Jill McCorkle’s “Life After Life” braids together the lives, dreams and memories of a small town in North Carolina. The story centers on Pine Haven Retirement Center, but as we all know, generations don’t live in isolation, and in Fulton, N.C., there are children, midlife career pitfalls and young adults, too. The narration shifts with each chapter; every character carries his own story.

Sadie Randolph, a retired third grade teacher who chooses to see the best in everyone, is the personification of melding past and present, a quality underscored by her befriending Abby, a 12-year-old who lives next door to the retirement home. A resident of Pine Haven, Sadie spends her time running an image-editing business called Exposure. With a Polaroid camera (despite her son’s insistence to move on and use contemporary technology), scissors and glue, she creates memories, all requested by the residents of Pine Haven.

“Life After Life” has an element of mystery, as well. Rachel Silverman is a widow from Boston. She moved to Fulton because a man she had an affair with, years ago, grew up in the small town. Rachel’s relationship with her lover illustrates how often we cross the line between reality and fantasy, especially when addressing emotional connections. In fact, illusion and magic are reoccurring themes. There is even an amateur magician, Ben Palmer, who was once a friend to hospice worker Joanna. But their relationship is fractured and Joanna forms a bond with C.J., a single mother striving to overcome a rocky past. C.J. does hair and nails at Pine Haven.

The circles between the characters cycle and churn, each individual living off of their own memories. Being privy to the reminiscences of everyone involved, we understand how the characters are only wise to the small slice of personality a friend or foe is offering.

Though the line between life and death is explored, and there is plenty of death, the tone is not filled with doom and gloom. There is hurt and pain, but there is found happiness, too, and the town’s residents seem to be reminding us we are continually impacting the lives of our family, friends and lovers, often in ways never intended.

At one point, Rachel says to fellow Pine Haven resident Stanley Stone, “We live days and weeks and months and years with so little awareness of life. We wait for the bad things that wake us up and shock our systems. But every now and then, on the most average day, it occurs to you that this is it. This is all there is.”

An addictive read, “Life After Life” functions as an antidote to any fame inferiority or sense of insignificance — it celebrates the connections of daily life.

Jill McCorkle will be signing copies of “Life After Life,” her 10th book and her first novel in 17 years, at Carmichael’s (2720 Frankfort Ave.) on Wednesday, May 29, at 7 p.m. 

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