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Hieroglyphics Book Review

“We were already thinking of you both, even though we probably couldn’t have said so in the moment. But how could I not think of you when standing there in that ancient place, in front of a display of hundreds of tokens meant for the sake of remembering and reuniting, the thimbles and buttons and lockets and coins, tiny brass fish and hairpins and keys, all marked in ways that make them unique, all there to say, “I love you. I’ll be back. Please don’t forget me. I’ll be back.”” (75-76).

In her latest novel, Jill McCorkle invites readers to travel back in time through the memories of Lil and Frank, a retired couple who recently moved from Boston to live near their daughter in North Carolina. Lil and Frank initially bonded over the fact that each had lost a parent when they were young. Throughout their many years of marriage, they developed a strong and unbreakable bond. In letters to their children, Lil’s mind drifts from thought to thought as she fills page after page in her journals with memories that continue to fade away. Now that Frank lives near the home he grew up in from the age of ten, he is finally ready to face his past. He is determined to visit his childhood home in hopes of recovering secret treasures he’d once hidden away. Whether Frank will be able to visit his former home is up to the home’s current occupant.

Shelley is a recently single mom trying to raise her young son, Harvey, on her own. She is taunted by traumas of her childhood that continually blend with the horrors of her present job as a court stenographer. Knowing the many unimaginable crimes committed every day convinces her that she shouldn’t allow Frank into her home, no matter how innocent his request may seem. Her son Harvey is haunted by stories from the past, told to him by his older brother, Jason, now away at college. Harvey also believes a ghost visits their home at night. Shelley is not convinced that he’s wrong.

Frank’s innocent attempts to visit his former home unknowingly trigger Shelley’s memories that have been selectively tucked away and left deep in her past. To the dismay of both Frank and Shelley, not all secrets can remain hidden. The parallels between these two families, both haunted by their own family secrets, ripple through time and filter into their present lives. While Lil attempts to piece together a history for her children to hold onto, Shelley pushes back on the pressing memories of her own family, one who’s past is better left alone.

In an essay Jill McCorkle wrote about Hieroglyphics, she said, “I was thinking of each of these characters in terms of the mark they leave on the world they inhabit, from the most visible and easily discerned knowledge to the tiniest keepsake or scrap of paper to what is consigned only to memory and perhaps never revealed. It is an endless excavation, each discovered item carrying its own story.”

While reading this book, I kept finding elements that I thought were predictable, only to be proven wrong. One instance involved the “secret word.” In one of Lil’s letters to her children she wrote, “I told your father later that it seems to me important if you are going to speak to someone from the other side, it would be good to have something original or unique to say, so that there’s no question or wondering about it all. We will know.” (72). Based on the context of that chapter, I thought I had predicted what “secret word” Lil and Frank had decided on. Much to my delight, it was not so predictable, and neither was anything else in this novel. Unpredictability is one of the elements that I believe makes great writing.

After you read Hieroglyphics, you may begin to wonder what artifacts exist in your own life that can unknowingly reveal hidden secrets of your past. Don’t miss out on this terrific novel!

Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle was released in July 2020 by Algonquin Books.