Tell Me an Ending by Jo Harkin

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Reviewed by Harriet

‘What if you didn’t have to live with your worst memories?’, asks the cover of this debut novel. Anyone who’s seen the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which a company called Lacuna undertakes to erase disturbing memories, will be familiar with the concept, which has popped up in various forms in other films and works of fiction. It sounds like science fiction, but, as Wikipedia will tell you, current research on various techniques are making it a distinct possibility. Naturally this raises serious ethical questions, which Jo Harkin explores through the medium of several interconnected stories.

The central figure here is Dr Noor Ali, head of the aftercare team at Nepenthe, the UK flagship company that offers this groundbreaking procedure. It’s her job to interview the clients who have had memory removals. There are actually two types of client – the self-informed, people who have chosen to have the procedure themselves, and the self-confidential, who don’t know they’ve had it done. Noor’s interviews are with the first group, obviously, and take place a month after the procedure. Until recently she simply had to ask if the client had experienced any after-effects. However, a new question has now been added: ‘do you feel that every element of the unwanted memory has been completely removed?’: 

The client stops smiling. He frowns.

Noor knew he would. This is part of the new script, reworded in a hurry not by the psychology department but by Nepenthe’s legal team.

‘Is this about traces?’says the client.

‘How do you mean?’ asks Noor. Neutral tone.

As she well knows, he’s referring to a disturbing phenomenon: scientists have recently found that deleted memories have not gone for good, and can even be recovered. In other countries, people have won lawsuits demanding their right for memory restoration, and others are wondering if they had had the procedure done without their knowledge. Nepenthe’s UK branch is in a quiet panic. There are demonstrations every day outside the building, and in an attempt to ward off further trouble, clients are being emailed asking them to make contact if they want to know ‘a secret: it’s about you’. So far so – relatively- straightforward, but her boss, Dr Louise Nightingale, has started using Noor’s computer to attempt to contact previous clients for some unknown purpose. Noor admires Louise tremendously but this is worrying her a great deal. Mistrusting her mentor is extremely uncomfortable, but her curiosity is driving her to investigate further.

Noor’s story is interspersed with those of four other people. Mei, a young woman living in Kuala Lumpur with her rather dodgy dad, is experiencing what she thinks must be memory traces. If that’s what they are, she realises she must have been a ‘night client’, one who had the procedure without their knowledge. Hers are connected with Amsterdam, a city she doesn’t remember visiting but for which she’s experiencing a strange yearning. Finn, an Irish architect living in Arizona with his beloved wife Mirande and their little daughter, has intercepted a message on Mirande’s phone seemingly connected with a memory removal he didn’t know she’d had. Could she have wanted to ease the memory of an affair? Oscar is living in Marrakesh. He has a lot of money in his bank account, which has enabled him to spend years travelling from country to country, but he has no idea why, as he has absolutely no memories of his life before the age of sixteen. All he knows is that someone is trying to make contact with him, something he’s avoiding by those frequent moves: he suspects he must have committed some criminal act which for some reason he’s completely forgotten. Finally there’s William, an ex-policeman, whose marriage to Annetta is on the rocks owing to his total inability to communicate. He’s suffering from severe PTSD, but cannot bring himself to talk about what caused it. He’s waiting to hear back from Nepenthe with an appointment to set his memory erasure process in motion. Slowly, over the course of this absorbing novel, connections between these various protagonists start to appear, as their stories reveal themselves. Noor’s own story has its trajectory, too, and turns out to have more to do with memory erasure than she had realised. 

I read a lot of science fiction in my early twenties, then went through decades avoiding it like the plague. But, in the last few years, I’ve read several amazing novels that have changed my mind. I’m thinking of Ishiguru’s Klara and the Sun, and his earlier Never Let Me Go, and Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me in particular – all of which are set in a world no different from our own apart from the fact that certain existing technologies are a bit further developed than at the present day. Tell Me an Ending obviously fits into this genre. No little green men with funny names living on distant planets (my particular bugbear) here. Memory erasure, like robotics and cloning, is an uncomfortably close possibility, and one that is, according to Jo Harkin’s interpretation, a questionable and almost invariably undesirable development. The novel explores human memory and its relation to the concept of self: if we can no longer recall certain passages of our own history, what effect will this have on our lives, our relationships, and how we see the world? I enjoyed this tremendously.

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Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny New Books.

Jo Harkin, Tell Me an Ending (Hutchinson Heinemann, 2022). 978-1529151374, 544pp., hardback. 

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