Life after Life and Life after Life
There are 2 recently published books with the title Life after Life. One is by Kate Atkinson, and the other is by Jill McCorkle. Both deal with death and how we choose to live the life we have. The book by Kate Atkinson has a British slant and centers on one character that is born and dies repeatedly and is a blend of historical fiction, alternate history, and literary fiction. The book by Jill McCorkle is set at a North Carolina retirement home and centers on the characters that live, die, work, and visit there.
The Kate Atkinson book starts with someone trying to assassinate Hitler. Then it quickly moves on to something like the movie Groundhog Day or the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” children’s series. Ursula is born on a snowy day in February 11, 1910 and dies at birth. Then the scene is repeated, but she lives only to die of drowning at age four. Then the scene is repeated with Ursula being saved from drowning and living longer only to die in a fall. Once again the scene is repeated except that she doesn’t drown and doesn’t die in a fall, but then Ursula dies of influenza at age 8. And so on until Ursula lives to be an adult and is living during World War II. A good chunk of the book is about World War II. In one reincarnation Ursula marries a German and dies with her daughter in Germany during World War II. In other reincarnations, she stays in England. Most of the World War II section is about Ursula’s life in London and is moving and harrowing. It reminded me of Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis which is about time travelers from the future stranded in England during World War II. Ursula’s family, which includes parents Sylvie and Hugh; siblings Maurice, Pamela, Teddy and Jimmy; and her free spirit Aunt Izzie, all have roles to play in the many reincarnations of Ursula. The story starts out light in tone but gets more serious. One of the questions that the book poses is: what would have happened if Hitler never came to power? Readers can draw their own conclusions on that question and on the book itself.
The Jill McCorkle book is set at the Pine Haven Retirement Home in Fulton, North Carolina. It is a poignant, character-driven story with realistic, flawed, and sympathetic characters. Characters often have different takes on the same event or person. Joanna is the character that glues the rest of the characters together in the book. She has returned to her hometown after 2 divorces, widowhood, and the deaths of her parents. She is a volunteer hospice worker at Pine Haven and manages the family hot dog stand called the Dog House. Her last marriage, which left her a widow, was a marriage of convenience to a dying gay man named Luke whose dog saved her from drowning and who helped her come to terms with her own life. The story is best understood by knowing the characters. C.J. is a young, single, tattooed and pierced mother who works as a beautician at the retirement home and had a tough childhood. Joanna babysits C.J.’s son Kurt, and C.J. confides in her. But C.J. does not tell Joanna everything such as the name of Kurt’s father or who she is seeing. Sadie is a wise and beloved retired 3rd grade teacher living at Pine Haven who thinks everyone is an 8-year-old at heart. Stanley is a retired local lawyer who is faking dementia so that he doesn’t have to go live with his son. Rachel is a retired lawyer from Massachusetts who chose to live at Pine Haven because she once had an affair with a man from Fulton. Toby is a former teacher and is assumed to be a lesbian. Marge, widow of a local judge, keeps a scrapbook on local crimes and has moral judgments on everything. Ben is Joanna’s childhood friend who performs magic tricks and is now unhappily married to a self-centered social climber named Kendra. Their daughter is 12-year-old Abby who often visits Pine Haven and is distraught about her missing dog Dollbaby. The story is bittersweet with a surprising twist at the end, and not everything ends well for everyone, much as in real life. The Jill McCorkle book has not received as much attention as the Kate Atkinson book, but if you like character-driven stories, you should give this a try.