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  • The Bossy Bookworm

Review of Tell Me an Ending by Jo Harkin

Harkin's fascinating debut speculative fiction considers a memory clinic that erases and reinstates memories at clients' requests, the impact of painful experiences on building the self, and potential repercussions of tinkering with your recall of the past.

Jo Harkin's debut novel, her speculative fiction Tell Me an Ending, is about a tech company that erases unwanted memories--and the many potential, complicated repercussions of tinkering with (and in some cases, obliterating) key memories.

Many people in Harkin's world have elected to have the company Nepenthe remove traumatic or upsetting memories through a relatively new procedure. The key memory and all connected elements are eliminated, presumably allowing these individuals to plow back into their lives unencumbered by upsetting past mistakes or experiences.

"...Scientifically, nobody knows the extent to which our memory forms our idea of self and how much our idea of self forms our memory. In practice, it doesn't seem to matter. Long before Nepenthe came along, lots of people were living happy and productive lives with parts of their memory missing. Even quite large parts. Our sense of self is very resourceful. Some people cope with the loss better than others, obviously."

But some clients are beginning to have flashes of their erased memory, "traces" that disturb and confuse them, and the company providing the service seems to be keeping secret some highly negative effects on some patients.

Then a court order leads to hundreds of people around the world being notified that at some point they had specific memories removed--in what was termed a "self-confidential" procedure they have since been unaware of. A collective shock takes over as they consider what these disturbing memories may have been--and whether they want to opt in to the chance to restore these memories.

Harkin tracks four main characters as they cope with what they may have lost, what might be gained from facing the truth, how painful experiences may have shaped them in essential ways, and whether it's best to leave forgotten pain behind.

Meanwhile, a renegade psychologist at the memory recovery clinic begins reinstating memories at individuals' requests--and potentially illegally--leaving patients with significant emotional fallout as they face the confusion of suddenly facing their painful pasts.

It's all out of control. What is [she] a part of? Something doing damage, harm spreading out across the world, each harm dividing and multiplying. People are booking restorations every day. People still want deletions.... The clinic rolls on, gathering money.... Sometimes their interventions make people better, sometimes they make them worse. Sometimes they destroy them.

Characters grapple with the unknown, deleted pain--wondering if their past self who decided to eliminate it really knew what was best for their future self, wondering how bad the experience could have been, wondering what on earth it was. Some can't resist reinstating the crushing pain, then struggle with the sudden reintroduction of the trauma into the void where it once lived in memory. Others are haunted by what may have been lost, but may imagine far worse scenarios and higher stakes than their actual experiences.

Secrets and lies swirl throughout this book and the plot zings along, and Harkin also digs into her characters and their brokenness, heartache, and mistakes, but also their love, joy, resilience and ability to transcend tragedy, and persistent hope.

I love fiction about memory and how it shapes us, and I thought Harkin's Tell Me an Ending was wonderful. I was captivated by the various situations, secrets, how memory is connected to a sense of self, and the complicated web of memories, experience, personality, and hopes and dreams that make us who we are.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

Still Alice by Lisa Genova and What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty are two other fiction titles I loved that explore memory loss and sense of self.

The Rook is another one with loss of memory at its heart; it's been on my to-read list and my bedside table stack for ages.

Are there other books with this element that you've loved?

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