STARRED REVIEW
August 2020

The beloved writer ruminates on the memories that inspired her novel

Jill McCorkle on her new novel, Hieroglyphics: “Everyone has a secret. Everyone has a memory that haunts or lingers. Everyone has a door they want to close, but for whatever reason, time continues to blow it ajar.”
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When I was growing up, there was a train that passed daily not far from our house. I loved the sound of it, and the whole neighborhood loved playing on the tracks. Even though we were told not to go there—admonished and threatened with the terrible things that could happen—we returned to put pennies on the tracks and watch them get flattened. There was always someone saying how destroying a penny was against the law and we could get arrested, but that fear usually dissipated with the flat copper treasure in our pockets and the view of the many miles we could travel, crosstie by crosstie.

Everyone has a secret. Everyone has a memory that haunts or lingers. Everyone has a door they want to close, but for whatever reason, time continues to blow it ajar.

My dad had another train story. He recalled the train crash that happened when he was an adolescent, a catastrophic event that made all the national papers and left the survivors hospitalized and stranded far from home. He had gone, as many had, to see the crash site, a memory that clearly haunted him. Though I knew it had happened 15 miles away, I pictured it there just beyond our neighbor’s backyard and the pine trees where I played. The details were impossible to forget: a freak snowfall, a stalled train crossing the track, a broken warning light, World War II soldiers heading home for Christmas. There were presents strewn, a bridal veil in the limbs of a tree, hospitals filled to capacity. 

I was an adolescent myself when I first heard the story. My dad was grilling steaks, our dog waiting for a bone, and the telling of his memory became one of my own. I imagined the crash and my dad as a boy, and I committed to memory the night I sat and listened, the glowing coals and the sadness in his voice as he described the scene and the many people waiting for news that would proclaim a loved one alive or dead: a clothing tag, a scar, a particular brand and size of shoe, words and numbers and objects with the power to represent a whole life. The dry-cleaning tag becomes an intimate object, as does the watch, the lucky coin, the button someone might have fastened in place before getting on the train. 

During the years I lived in the Boston area, I often heard references to the Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942, another catastrophic event that shocked and devastated a whole community. It was cold, it was dark, and people were left waiting and searching for personal items—a ring or necklace, a monogram or tag—anything that could bring news.

In the novel, two of my characters—Lil and Frank—are dealing with having parents who died in these tragic events. His father was on the train going home; her mother went to the Cocoanut Grove club without telling Lil or Lil’s father where she was going. These losses led them to each other in the beginning, and now they have a long marriage behind them. Still, there is so much they don’t know about their parents and, likewise, so much their own children don’t know about them. There is also Shelley, a young mother trying to raise her sons and working as a stenographer in the courts, her shorthand and recordings of local crimes helping her to blot out much of her own troubled past.

Everyone has a secret. Everyone has a memory that haunts or lingers. Everyone has a door they want to close, but for whatever reason, time continues to blow it ajar. Until now, Frank has avoided looking, unlike Lil, who flings hers wide open, determined to know all that she can. Shelley has locked and barred her door multiple times, but the wind keeps rattling all the things she cannot escape, while her son, Harvey, is just beginning to find his way, doing what all children do: imagining his future and, along the way, finding and collecting and hiding little things like matchbook covers and flattened pennies. 

In the early days of writing this novel, I read that when sites of orphanages or schools are excavated, there are often little caches of toys tucked away and hidden, evidence of children wanting to claim and protect what belongs to them. There are also the many versions of “Kilroy was here”—graffiti, handprints, notes in bottles—the desire to be remembered and, thus, immortal. In shaping these characters, I was thinking of the many marks we leave on our worlds, from the most visible knowledge to the tiniest keepsake or scrap of paper to what is secret or consigned only to memory. It is an endless excavation, no two alike. My hope is that the readers of Hieroglyphics will be entertained, but also that they will think of fragments from their own lives and experience the oldest and purest form of time travel—memory.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Hieroglyphics.

Author photo by Tom Rankin

Get the Book

Hieroglyphics

Hieroglyphics

By Jill McCorkle
Algonquin
ISBN 9781616209728

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