Lil and Frank married young, launched into courtship when they bonded over how they both—suddenly, tragically—lost a parent when they were children. Over time, their marriage grew and strengthened, with each still wishing for so much more understanding of the parents they’d lost prematurely.
Now, after many years in Boston, they have retired in North Carolina. There, Lil, determined to leave a history for their children, sifts through letters and notes and diary entries—perhaps revealing more secrets than Frank wants their children to know. Meanwhile, Frank has become obsessed with what might have been left behind at the house he lived in as a boy on the outskirts of town, where a young single mother, Shelley, is just trying to raise her son with some sense of normalcy. Frank’s repeated visits to Shelley’s house begin to trigger memories of her own family, memories that she’d rather forget. Because, after all, not all parents are ones you wish to remember.
Hieroglyphics reveals the difficulty of ever really knowing the intentions and dreams and secrets of the people who raised you. In her deeply layered and masterful novel, Jill McCorkle deconstructs and reconstructs what it means to be a father or a mother, and what it means to be a child piecing together the world all around us, a child learning to make sense of the hieroglyphics of history and memory.
Hieroglyphics opens as a character study of three generations of people not necessarily connected by family, but related by home. Lil and Frank are an older couple returning to their hometown in the winter of their lives. Shelley is a single mother of two boys Jason and Harvey. She and Harvey live alone in Frank’s childhood home.
We get a very good sense of Lil through her collection of letters and odd bits of history that she leaves about the house. Of all the characters her voice was the one resonated with me the most. I felt nostalgic at times even though she is not of my generation nor is her story my story. I was just pulled in by the love that she showed her family, her inner strength and her loyalty.
Frank is an archaeologist who investigates “graves and caves” in search of clues of long gone civilizations. But the past that he is really trying to decipher is his own.
Shelley works as a stenographer who is beset by the current case that she is transcribing. It is a high profile murder case where she over identifies with the victim. As she listens to testimony it triggers flashbacks of her past traumas. This intense anxiety is causing her to reflect on different aspects of her life. Not only forcing her to revisit her mistakes of the past, but to also reevaluate her decisions as a parent.
Poor Harvey thinks their home is haunted. There is a ghost that lingers at night and causes him to wet the bed. He has a vivid imagination. When he puts on one of his fake mustaches he could be either a sentient adult or a superhero known as Super Monkey. His superpower is that he can talk serial killers out of doing wrong and turn them onto the path of all that is moral and good. All of these are symptoms of his overriding fears – his sensitivity over his cleft lip, his abandonment by his father and his awareness of his mother’s grief and distress.
When I was a student I found that picking a title that encapsulated the heart of my story was perhaps one of the hardest tasks of writing. So now as an adult whenever I read a book I try to figure out why the author chose the title and its significance. After reading Hieroglyphics I came up with two justifications for the name.
Hieroglyphics are an ancient code of pictures that tell a story. Each of the characters encode their experiences. Shelley uses shorthand while transcribing her cases. Harvey and his brother trade secrets in Klingon. Lil reminisces over her mother’s unique sort of jargon. She and Frank share secret words so if one dies first they can “send messages” through the living.
Hieroglyphics are a language that informs the past. Here the past can be bittersweet with characters at times examining their lives through experiences of death and catastrophe. As Lil helps her daughter prepare for her wedding she is reminded of her own. Although her own mother was taken before she wed Frank she feels blessed to share this moment with her daughter and remembers how tragedy brought her and Frank together.
Take your time reading this book. It is subtle. It is sublime. If I had to sum Hieroglyphics up in one sentence I would say that it was a heartfelt, bittersweet examination of the legacy we leave behind for those we love. Highly recommend.
Meet the Author
Jill McCorkle’s first two novels were released simultaneously when she was just out of college, and the New York Times called her “a born novelist.” Since then, she has published six novels and four collections of short stories, and her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories several times, as well as The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Five of her books have been New York Times Notable books, and her most recent novel, Life After Life, was a New York Times bestseller. She has received the New England Booksellers Award, the John Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. She has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Garden and Gun, the Atlantic, and other publications. She was a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Fiction at Harvard, where she also chaired the department of creative writing. She is currently a faculty member of the Bennington College Writing Seminars and is affiliated with the MFA program at North Carolina State University.