“We are all haunted by something — something we did or didn’t do — and the passing years either add to the weight or diminish it.” Those are the words of Lil, the loving but wounded woman at the heart of Jill McCorkle’s new novel, Hieroglyphics. The tormenting power of memory, and conflicting desires to escape and interrogate the past, shape the lives of all the characters in this poignant, deeply human story.
Lil and her husband Frank are an elderly couple who’ve left Massachusetts to spend their last years in North Carolina, near their grown daughter. For Lil, who was once a dance teacher, the move feels like exile. She misses New England and can’t reconcile herself to Southern culture, including “the tea, thick with sugar and God knows what; you can feel your arteries closing in resistance.” For Frank, though, the move is a return. A Massachusetts native, he spent part of his boyhood in this same North Carolina community after his parents, headed home from Florida, were in a terrible train accident nearby. His father died, and his mother ultimately married the local man who came to her aid after the wreck.
The loss of a parent is a trauma Lil and Frank share. Lil’s mother died in a Boston nightclub fire when Lil was still in grade school. (McCorkle draws on real events for these two plot details: the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire and a 1943 rail disaster in Robeson County, North Carolina.) She and Frank are both haunted by a desire to make sense of their enduring pain but respond in different, sometimes incompatible ways. Lil is the family recorder, a habitual jotter and journal keeper who has for many years set down her unvarnished thoughts and memories with the aim of passing all of it, the bad parts included, on to the next generation.
Frank, whose academic career was devoted to archaeology, is prone to sidestep uncomfortable emotions and has largely directed his focus to an ancient past remote from his own. Now that his time is getting short, though, he’s revisiting his early grief and has become obsessed with a personal artifact: the house he shared with his mother and stepfather, a house now occupied by an anxious single mother named Shelley, who is thoroughly creeped out by the old man who keeps showing up to ask if he can come in and look around his boyhood home.
Unlike Frank and Lil, Shelley is still in a stage of life when escaping an unhappy past seems possible, though she has outgrown the mentality that sees the future as limitless. She has plenty of concerns in the present, with two sons to worry about and a job as a criminal court stenographer that subjects her to a constant stream of details about the worst things human beings do to each other. Her most recent partner, the father of her younger son, has fled to Alaska — or is it Alabama? Since he was given to casually saying things like “You’d be so easy to kill, Shell,” his departure is more of a relief than a loss.
The narrative shifts among these three characters and Shelley’s six-year-old son, Harvey, providing McCorkle with rich opportunity to explore the experience of time and memory and how it evolves over the course of a life. Little Harvey, who’s a bit of a handful for his mother, lives in a vivid, sometimes menacing present where the real and the imaginary mix — “Super Monkey would have saved those kids that got shot too.” Shelley’s absorbed in the challenges of daily survival, and she’s capable of being quite funny about them, but a thread of remembered pain often runs through her thoughts, as when she thinks about how more motherly love might have influenced her life for the better: “She might have stood a little taller, taken more chances. Flown away sooner.”
Frank and Lil, by contrast, dwell in a present so thoroughly saturated in the past that chronology hardly matters. Childhood grief, the love and trouble in their long marriage, the tension between them over how to confront looming death — these are all of a piece. This is particularly true for Lil, the only character who narrates her own story (via her notes and journals). Like so many wives, Lil carries much of the emotional baggage of the marriage, but she’s also taken on the larger task of preserving the continuity between the children she and Frank were and the elders they are. She has done the heart’s work through the passage of time:
Clockwork, that was my father, and how interesting the importance of time to the men in my life — one whose work was all about precision and trying to keep it moving forward second by second, and one whose career is all about reaching back and digging (except when personal). Some days, I feel like I am like that tiny screw in the center, holding the hands in place.
No one has a more captivating storytelling style than McCorkle, and her narrative gifts are on full display in Hieroglyphics. As in her previous novel, Life After Life, she does a masterful job of weaving a whole from many parts. Revelations about all the characters arrive slowly, finally reaching a conclusion that is fully satisfying, as soaked in love and sorrow as every human life.
Maria Browning is a fifth-generation Tennessean who grew up in Erin and Nashville. Her work has appeared in Guernica, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times. She’s the editor of Chapter 16.