Most of us — unless we’re practicing Hindus, or James Bond — believe that we’ll only live once. For a few wild hedonists, that’s a mandate to carpe every diem; for the rest, it just means no do-overs. But what if there were? In a pair of new novels both titled Life After Life, two acclaimed writers of contemporary fiction grapple with the limits and mandates of mortality, though they come at the subject in radically different ways.
Kate Atkinson’s Life is by far the more audacious, the kind of sweeping virtuoso epic that actually earns overheated book-jacket phrases like ”tour de force!” Her protagonist, Ursula Todd, dies on the seventh page, before she even takes her first breath on a snowy winter night in England in 1910: ”Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.” Four pages later, Ursula is born again and lives — at least for a while. As she grows up, the book keeps returning to alternate versions of that night and some dozen other moments in her ordinary, extraordinary life, a prism refracting countless possibilities. (And countless exits, too. Ursula may be special, but she’s not very lucky: Slippery rooftops, influenza, and air raids seek her out with alarming regularity.) Each time she’s reborn, her only guide is an erratic sense of déjà vu, small signposts that push her to change her fate(s) and, in the book’s biggest gamble, maybe the fate of the free world.
Atkinson, the award-winning author of seven previous novels, including Case Histories and Behind the Scenes at the Museum, is a fantastic storyteller, but she’s not a science fictionist or philosopher, so there are questions about Ursula’s abilities and purpose that go unexamined. Still, it’s all so richly imagined and ingeniously executed that the mystery feels right. Her domestic vignettes and wide-screen portraits of wartime resonate with startling physical and emotional clarity, and even her repetitions find fresh revelations.
Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life is perfectly good and sometimes even great — a vividly voiced round-robin of interlocking stories set in and around a North Carolina retirement home. But her Life burns at a lower wattage than Atkinson’s, and some characters in her sprawling cast feel off. The best, like octogenarians Rachel and Sadie, are sharply real, even if their stories mostly involve memories from decades ago. Some, like young single mother C.J., who does the elderly residents’ hair and nails, and teen outcast Abby, who forms an odd-bird friendship with Sadie, are more problematic. Others aren’t so much characters as cameos in chapters that double as their epitaphs, told in part by a hospice volunteer named Joanna, who has her own reasons for taking on such a somber job.
Maybe a more accurate title for McCorkle’s book would be Death After Death, though that would make it sound too bleak. There’s levity until the final pages, when McCorkle unpacks a twist that feels more like a sucker punch. She’s at her best when she does what Atkinson has mastered: shining a light on how full life is of choices and chance, and how lucky we are to live it. Atkinson’s Life After Life: A McCorkle’s Life After Life: B+