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Posts Tagged ‘Life After Life’

atkinsonMy friend Dean recently banned the use of  the old Yogi Berra saying “deja vu all over again” because it is  misused and overused, cliched and redundant.  But when I first started reading Kate Atkinson’s kaleidoscopic new novel Life After Life (Little, Brown, digital galley via NetGalley), I kept thinking of it, especially when Ursula Todd’s mother says of her daughter “she has a kind of deja vu all the time.”

Not surprising when Ursula lives and dies multiple times over the course of the novel, which is so much more than a narrative parlor trick, a literary Groundhog Day, or an episode of Dr. Who. (Come to think of it, though, Ursula appears to be a kindred spirit of the Doctor’s enigmatic new companion, Clara Oswin Oswald, who has died at least twice already that viewers know of.)

Ursula first is stillborn on a snowy February night in 1910. A few pages later, the umbilical cord is cut from her neck and she breathes. But her seemingly idyllic Yorkshire childhood is filled with perils: crashing waves, slippery roofs, Spanish flu. “Darkness falls” is Atkinson’s signature cue for Ursula’s demise so another scenario can be played out, events slightly altered and leading down different roads. Not to spoil things, but in one life Ursula marries an abusive schoolteacher; in another, she marries a German lawyer and has a child. In that life, she also knows Eva Braun and is caught in the bombing of Berlin. But in other lives, she both dies and survives the London Blitz several times as “darkness falls” over England and Europe. Eventually, the book circles back to its 1930 prologue when an English woman points a gun at Hitler because, of course, if you could go back and “get things right,” you’d want to kill him, too.

The Blitz, as Atkinson says, is the “dark beating heart” of the novel and her set pieces are accordingly horrific as to the damage inflicted on people, animals, birds and buildings. Again and again, the story returns to a subterranean cellar of a house on Argyll Road, where residents shelter during air raids. “It was a maze, a moldy, unpleasant space, full of spiders and beetles, and felt horribly crowded if they were all in there, especially once the Millers’ dog, a shapeless rug of fur called Billy, was dragged reluctantly down the stairs to join them.”

Atkinson surrounds Ursula with a fully realized family: banker father Hugh and faceted mother Sylvie,  obnoxious brother Maurice, bohemian aunt Izzie, beloved brother Teddy, reliable sister Pamela. Their fates, too, change, depending on which of Ursula’s lives you’re following at the time. Then there’s the memorable supporting cast, including heroic air raid warden Miss Woolf, married naval officer Crighton, childhood friends Millie,  Nancy, Fred, Ben. Like some details — a piece of costume jewelry, or a small white dog, or gold cigarette case — they keep showing up in different plotlines. 

You might wonder as to the point of all these pluralities, other than Atkinson stretching the storytelling envelope. Those familiar with her Jackson Brodie crime novels such as Case History or the semi-time-travel tale Human Croquet know she’s already a deft and inventive writer. I’ll read anything she has written. But Life After Life, both playful and poignant, strikes me as her best book yet, “bearing witness” to lives gone before, yet reimagining life’s possibilities. I can’t wait to read it again.

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mccorkleAs a hospice volunteer, Joanna knows the importance of moments. Her own checkered past has led her back to the small North Carolina town of Fulton, where she made peace with her daddy and now records the last thoughts and words of the dying at the Pine Haven retirement center. But she also is fully engaged with living and the living, from tattooed single mom CJ to troubled pre-teen Abby to retired third-grade teacher Sadie. The latter optimistic soul uses Polaroid snapshots, cut-out magazine scenes, color markers and glue to assemble collages of her friends in places they have only imagined. “I can make you a memory and I can make a dream come true,” she says.

Jill McCorkle does something similar in her new novel, Life After Life, spinning words and images into a story that rings so true you forget it’s fiction. I once wrote about one of her books — maybe the novel Carolina Moon, maybe the story collection Final Vinyl Days, possibly both — that her characters live so fully within the pages that you swear they also live outside them. They’re that real.

Take former lawyer Stanley Stone, who has moved to Pine Haven with his obsession for wrestling, Herb Alpert and inappropriate remarks. But he is faking dementia because he wants his grown son to have a life of his own. Rachel Silverman, another retired lawyer, may be the one to figure him out, although she has her own secret reason for leaving Massachusetts for Pine Haven — it’s next to the cemetery where the love of her  life is buried next to his wife. The cemetery is also a refuge for Abby, who is mourning her lost  dog Dollbaby and hoping that her parents — social-climbing Kendra and amateur magician Ben — split up. Kendra is carrying on an affair with a married man, while Ben, once Sadie’s favorite student and Joanna’s best childhood friend, drinks too much and perfects a disappearing chamber. “And now ladies and gentlemen, I will make this normal ordinary girl disappear.”

Joanna remembers Ben’s words over the years and once tried to make herself disappear by drowning in a hot tub — only to be rescued by a giant dog named Tammy. And it was Tammy’s owner Luke who gave Joanna back her life, encouraging her to “unpack her heart” of failed projects, toxic relationships, old grievances and wounds. Joanna is still working on that.

McCorkle has the gift of mixing humor and heartbreak so as to make you laugh one moment, cry the next. Death can be peaceful, or it can be sudden, even violent. Happy endings are not guaranteed, and surprises still await the most jaded. In the end, Life After Life is true-to-life.

Open Book: I read a digital galley and review copy of Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life (Shannon Ravenel/Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). It’s not to be confused with the new book of the same title by Kate Atkinson, which I’ll be writing about when it pubs next week. They both are good but different.

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