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Acclaimed and beloved author Jill McCorkle returns with HIEROGLYPHICS, a thought-provoking novel about the meaning of small and big moments alike, and the ways that they can shape our past and our present.

The couple at the heart of the book, Lil and Frank, have been married for decades, and though their relationship was never one of pure passion or lust, they have built a partnership based on something deeper: trauma. Each lost a parent suddenly and tragically --- Lil's mother died in a fire at Boston's Cocoanut Grove night club, while Frank's father was killed in a train accident. These devastating incidents rocked their lives and set them on a collision course for one another. Now, however, with both of them far surpassing the ages of their deceased friends and relatives, they are reflecting on the moments that have kept them together --- and the ones that nearly drove them apart.

"Perfect for readers of ASK AGAIN, YES and ALL ADULTS HERE, HIEROGLYPHICS is a masterful and poignant exploration of memory, history and the stories we hold dear, regardless of their basis in fact or fiction."

Lil and Frank have retired to North Carolina, which holds both promise and tragic memories for the couple --- and where they know they eventually will fade away, as each is dealing with health and memory issues. For Lil, it is a way to reconnect with their daughter and ease into retirement. But for Frank, it is where his family settled after they lost nearly everything. He finds himself obsessed with visiting his childhood home. Its current resident, Shelley, is a single mother whose young son, Harvey, has a dark imagination fueled by very real abandonment issues and everyday childhood fears. She is a court reporter who is overinvolved in the trial of a prominent physician accused of murdering a young woman, and her job is influencing Harvey's night terrors and his belief in ghosts. He is also convinced that his father, who recently left them, is just one adventurous trip away, despite the ever-pressing reality that he may never return.

What makes HIEROGLYPHICS memorable is not one searing plot point, but the space that McCorkle gives her characters to grow and develop without resorting to action-packed and dramatic scenes. She focuses on the bounds that push us together and pull us apart, and how we struggle and strive to live up to the expectations placed upon us. Or, in the case of Lil and Frank, the ways in which we beg our families --- even those relatives who are deceased --- to give us meaning and perspective.

Having each lost a parent prematurely, Lil and Frank obsess over what could have been. But rather than seeming self-centered or out of touch, their perspectives ring with universal truths about the scars of the past. Coupled with the narrative of Shelley and her son, these characters offer a poignant, breathtaking and well-rounded view of grief, loyalty and maturity. Though the connections between them are tenuous at first, McCorkle deftly binds their shared losses and grievances to create something far larger than the sum of its parts --- a novel that surpasses expectations, predictions and emotions.

My only issue with the book is just how deeply personal it is. If you do not immediately connect with one of the main characters, it can become difficult to continue reading, as so much of the story is strongly tied to them. Lil is sensitive and a bit anal retentive; Frank, on the other hand, is somewhat insensitive; and Shelley is harried and overdrawn. Any one of them is a lot to stomach, but tied together, they force readers into an emotionally taut narrative that asks a lot of them, especially if one part of the tale falls flat. This is the issue with many character-driven novels, but here it feels especially important, as so much of the action takes place through flashbacks and memory rather than on the page.

HIEROGLYPHICS has very little plot but a whole lot of heart and magnitude. McCorkle writes in a meandering, easily readable style, but before you know it, she has catapulted you into a deceivingly simple scene that packs an enormous punch. This is a highly reflective book, and so much of the action is intellectual, but McCorkle somehow manages to craft a distinctly interior story while asking her audience to shoulder the brunt of the emotional work. The result is an affecting novel that will present a different meaning for those who take the time to enjoy and process it.

Perfect for readers of ASK AGAIN, YES and ALL ADULTS HERE, HIEROGLYPHICS is a masterful and poignant exploration of memory, history and the stories we hold dear, regardless of their basis in fact or fiction.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on July 31, 2020

by Jill McCorkle

  • Publication Date: July 28, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1616209720
  • ISBN-13: 9781616209728