‘Preparation for the Next Life’ by Atticus Lish – A Love Story, A Brutal Love Story

‘Preparation for the Next Life’ by Atticus Lish    (2015) – 417 pages     Grade: A-

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‘Preparation for the Next Life’ is a love story, but it also covers the harsh changes that took place in the United States after 9/11.   The United States used to be the melting pot for people from all over the world.  Now foreigners, especially non-white foreigners, are greeted with total suspicion, distrust, and contempt.

The love story is between Zou Lei, a young woman from China, and Brad Skinner, an Iraq War veteran.

The novel begins with Zou Lei in an illegal immigrant detention center run by Homeland Security. She had tried to sneak across the Mexican border in a truck with a bunch of other illegals.

“They felt through her clothes and took her money, zip-tied her, and put her in a van with a Salvadoran prisoner.  It took all afternoon.”

Zou Lei is half-Muslim and from far western China.  According to the Guardian, there are over 23 million Muslims in China which is only a tiny percentage of the total population but still a significant number of people.  In China, the Muslims are treated like “an illegal immigrant in your own country”.  Like so many immigrants, Zou Lei is driven away from home by the grim conditions.

After three rough months in the detention center, Zou Lei is finally released with no explanation.  She decides that the best place to hide is in Queens in New York City where everyone is an illegal.  She gets a job in one of the many Chinese restaurants there.  Since her bosses know she’s an illegal, they don’t have to pay her minimum wage.  She is given “a shirt with an insignia and a visor, the smell of vaporized grease in the fabric.”

Brad Skinner was ‘stop-lossed’ (an ‘involuntary extension’) into serving three tours of duty in Iraq.  The scenes in Iraq are the usual scenes of American soldiers roaming the streets of one of Iraq’s cities shooting at everything that moves with their high-powered automatic rifles and on the watch for sniper fire or possible IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

Skinner is finally out of the army after his best friend Sconyers is gruesomely killed, and now Skinner is living by himself in a basement apartment in New York City.

“The army had given him anti-anxiety medication, anti-psychotic medication, and something to help him sleep.  Whatever else these chemicals did to him, they did not stop him from having nightmares.”

Skinner and Zou Lei meet on a stairway.  They share a common interest in physical fitness and training.  Both realize that the only way out of their individual dilemmas is to stay strong and in shape.  This is a redemptive bond between them, and they become lovers.

Zou Lei must always be on the watch for Homeland Security people.

“The guards were after anyone who was Asian, Muslim, Trini, black, brown, whatever – anything like Arab, because they are so stupid and fucking racist, they think everybody with dark skin is the same.” 

 Things get particularly dreadful when the Irish landlady’s son Jimmy enters the scene. Toward the end of ‘Preparation for the Next Life’, I was almost too scared for Zou Lei and Skinner to continue reading.

‘Preparation for the Next Life’ is not an easy read, but it is a powerful moving story.   Its staccato style can quickly lead to sensory overload, and I had difficulty reading more than four pages in a sitting.  But no other novel that I have read so far has had as much insight into how the United States has changed since 9/11.  It will help you consider and understand these profound changes while still presenting an entirely captivating story.

5 responses to this post.

  1. It sounds depressingly like the way things have changed here too….


  2. “Toward the end of ‘Preparation for the Next Life’, I was almost too scared for Zou Lei and Skinner to continue reading.” – that’s a hell of a compliment to the author.


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