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  • Writer's pictureJo Kibble

The Power of Memory in Jill McCorkle's "Hieroglyphics"

In Jill McCorkle's latest novel Hieroglyphics, 85-year-old Lil Wishart and her husband Frank have moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina to be closer to their adult daughter. While there, Lil is collecting journal entries from her past: memories of funny anecdotes, kids' arguments, affectionate and troublesome stories about Frank, in the hopes that in sorting out her own past and leaving a record for her children, she can help them sort out their own.

In the same area of North Carolina, Shelley, a court transcriptionist, lives with her two sons in the now run-down house that Frank used to live in. Since returning to North Carolina, Frank is eager to see the old house where his mother lived after the tragedy that marked his childhood. Frank comes to visit the house multiple times, but Shelley doesn't want him there. At one point she sends him away with a line about her husband, although she really is raising Harvey, her sweet and impressionable 6-year-old, alone--her older son, from a different, absent father, has recently started college. Shelley's workdays are spent distractedly recording the proceedings of a terrible murder trial, worrying about the details of this grisly case, her life, and her son.

With a title evoking ancient Egyptian history, Hieroglyphics is appropriately full of hauntings, tombs, cemeteries, and ghosts. Young Harvey consistently worries about stories his older brother told him, stories of Lizzie Borden and the Menendez brothers. Frank, a retired college professor, used to study burial rituals and ancient history, "the myths of death and all the ancient beliefs of the afterlife." Lil, in her earlier years, volunteered at a hospice center, in an effort to work through her own grief of losing her mother in an accident that first drew Lil and Frank together.

The two have a shared past of losing parents early to freak accidents. Lil lost her mother to the (real) Coconut Grove fire of 1952 in Boston, while Frank lost his father to a December 1943 train accident (also real) outside of Fayetteville, NC. The only reason his mother survived the train wreck was because she was in the bathroom when the train went off the tracks, but she emerged from the wreckage badly injured, and eventually stayed in North Carolina, ultimately bringing Frank to join her. The shock of these losses has impacted Frank and Lil throughout their lives, to be sure, but how, exactly? What kind of parents do Frank and Lil become because of their shared trauma? How does their shared trauma impact them as a couple? What power does memory, particularly traumatic memory, have in shaping who we are, who we become?

Hieroglyphics is beautifully written with dream-like, yet honest, and often amusing, prose. Sections alternate between Frank's, Lil's, Shelley's, and Harvey's point of view. In an essay at the end of the novel, McCorkle writes that in the early days of writing Hieroglyphics, she "[thought] of these characters in terms of the mark they leave on the world," remarking that the process of recognizing these marks, marks that range from words spoken to others, to material keepsakes, to things forever left unsaid, is "an endless excavation." This mental excavation is really at the heart of Hieroglyphics, a novel that leads the reader to examine and excavate various elements and images from their own life and boldly remember.

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