Traumatic Memory Removal and the Uncertain Cost of Restoration: A Review of Tell Me an Ending by Jo Harkin
Words By Jessenia Hernandez
Published March 1, 2022 by Scribner
When I came across Jo Harkin’s Tell Me an Ending, the premise was too intriguing to pass up—four characters deal with the consequences of having their memories removed by Nepenthe, a clinic that has pioneered a memory removal drug. Mei, William, Finn, and Oscar have all elected to be “self-confidential” patients, meaning they are left with no recollection of the removal. Nepenthe comes under intense scrutiny when past clients claim to be experiencing “memory traces,” or pieces of removed memories resurfacing, and the clinic is forced to offer all self-confidential clients a memory restoration. These four characters are ultimately connected by a choice they cannot remember making—to delete a traumatic memory—and a choice they must now make—whether to get it back. The fifth protagonist is Noor, a psychologist working at a Nepenthe clinic in Crowshill, England—the same clinic the other four protagonists once visited, unbeknownst to them. Noor looks up to her boss and friend, Louise, until some strange behaviors make Noor suspicious that Louise may be involved in something sinister at Nepenthe. Readers follow these five characters through an emotionally tumultuous, unyieldingly suspenseful ride toward several shocking endings.
Perhaps both my most and least favorite aspect of this novel is its extreme emotional intensity. I do love a story that packs an emotional punch, but this book was more like an emotional stabbing. Despite the pain, I greatly admire Jo Harkin’s ability to craft complex characters that feel like authentic people. I found it easy to connect with each character, which was why their traumas increasingly weighed on me throughout the novel. Mei deals with a history of depression and drug abuse, leaving her feeling incapable and lost in life. William’s PTSD has led to a lost job, a trial separation from his wife, and worries about losing his children. Finn is troubled by the possibility that his wife may be having an affair with their old friend. Oscar is missing large chunks of memory from his past, and his paranoia about who he is has kept him on the run for years. Harkin’s characters all experience loneliness, sadness, uncertainty, and self-loathing, but also joy, love, and connection. Like many people, they often base their decisions on an emotional instinct. They feel like living, breathing humans, and I believe most readers will find a piece of themselves in at least one of these characters.
Tell Me an Ending alsocreatively explores themes of memory and its connection to self and identity. I appreciated Harkin’s references to philosophy, scientific research, and popular media to put these concepts into a conversation, showing the robust research that clearly went into writing this novel. In one chapter, Mei and her mother discuss the difference between the Lockean and Humean views on self and memory. While Locke proposed that “the self is based on memory,” Hume believed that the self is “. . . a bundle of processes. A collection of associations, learned responses, memories, et cetera. Swirling, contradictory, inchoate. Impermanent perceptions, belonging to nothing”. Moments like this made big philosophical and moral questions more digestible and informed the way I navigated and understood this book. They inspired me to not only look inward at how my past and memories have shaped me but also to consider a myriad of sides to each character’s actions and reactions.
This brings me to another aspect of the novel I admired, which was the exploration and constant presence of ambiguity both in the characters and the practices they are involved with. I believe ambiguity adds verisimilitude to a novel, and Harkin speaks to how almost nothing in this world—especially not people—is black and white. Characters struggle between following morals and rules, such as Noor, who wonders whether investigating Louise’s shady doings will uncover that she is part of a sinister conspiracy, or that she is trying to fight against one. Nepenthe’s success, despite the moral ambiguity of their practices, emphasizes how corporate greed makes this dystopian future a plausible reality. This story is not just science-fiction, but a portrayal of what could happen when a company profits off a potentially dangerous medical practice that preys on traumatized people. Even in a society where this is actively occurring, some people believe in the benefits of removing traumatic memories while others believe that altering the brain is a dangerous and poorly researched practice. Readers see throughout the novel that both arguments have merit and that sometimes the answer is not the same for everyone.
My only qualm with this novel was that I sometimes found myself conflating Finn’s and William’s perspectives, as both are in struggling marriages, and I would have to go back to clarify aspects of each character’s story. It was otherwise impressively easy to stay immersed in the narrative, especially with the suspense carrying me through. Harkin also manages to flesh out five characters with clear voices and distinct personalities. She cleverly weaves their stories together, emphasizing how connected we all are, often without even realizing it. Something all the characters struggle with at one point or another is loneliness as they internally grapple with whether to regain a memory, a past version of themselves deemed too horrible to cope with. Though their circumstances differ, all five characters’ struggles boil down to the uncertainty that comes with being human.
For a book full of people seeking answers, Tell Me an Ending surprisingly offers very few in the end. Some characters may have gained answers about their pasts, but they are still left to cope with their present and to work toward a better future. Harkin highlights the multiplicity and ambiguity of life, forwarding the idea that while many of these characters search for answers, the reality is that many truths—many answers to the same questions—can exist at once. The ending, therefore, lacks a distinct resolution for any of the characters, which I believe adds to the authenticity of their stories. Through hardship and success, life goes on, and we must move along with it. If you’re stuck in a rut, this book might make you even sadder, but it will also open you up to taking a breath, letting go, and appreciating what you have instead of agonizing over what you don’t. I recommend Tell Me an Ending to anyone who enjoys a whole lot of drama and suspense, but also to those looking for a fresh perspective on concepts like life and purpose. I’m not saying this novel has all the answers, but I believe it will be an eye-opening start.