‘Tell Me An Ending’ by Jo Harkin: A Book Review

Do our memories define us? A subject of many a novel, some of which are my favorite books of all time. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giantexamines whether it is better to forget transgressions that are made against you, and James Smythe’s The Machine is a disturbing tale that describes a machine that can overwrite memories with new ones. Both are excellent novels and if you haven’t read them, check them out. Tell Me and Ending by Jo Harkin offers a similar premise. What if you could remove bad memories?

What Is Tell Me an Ending?

The Me an Ending is an ensemble novel with several interwoven points of view. The characters telling each story do not, at first, appear to be related, apart from each being involved in some form with a company called “Nepenthe.” (Note: The definition of Nepenthe, tells you everything you need to know about what this novel is about.) Nepenthe is a company with a medical facility not far out of London (coincidentally, in a fictional town situated in the same area in which I live).

Its raison d’etre as a company is to help people forget traumatic memories. They have two types of clients: Those who know that they have had a memory removed and those who have no clue. i.e. At the time of memory erasure, they agreed to have the memory of having the memory erased, erased. 

The characters telling their stories fit roughly into two categories: Those who have had some sort of memory erasure and those with connections to Nepenthe, either directly, such as being an employee, or indirectly, such as being related to an employee. Some may fall into both categories.

Over the course of the novel, stories interweave and impinge on one another. The central plot, narrated by Noor, follows Noor and her mentor at Nepenthe, Louise. Noor finds all sorts of questionable goings-on at the company but in a world where memory is unreliable, who can she trust to get to the bottom of things?

The novel becomes a meditation on the importance of our memories, good and ill. Some memories are so traumatic, surely removing them would be a good thing?

Why Read Tell Me an Ending?

First up, I have to say, I don’t think this is a perfect novel. It comes in at over 500 pages, and I found it dragged. Some of the narratives felt less relevant than others and I think at least one could have been cut without spoiling the overall arc of the book. There were points when I nearly gave up but there always remained enough to pull me through. I’m glad I persevered and reached the end. As the threads draw together, Harkin delivers a thrilling denouement. 

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What the book does is show how many different ways we use our memories. Short term, long term; how we obfuscate our own recollections. We create alternate truths, avoid poking too hard at things we don’t want to remember or understand. It seems an obvious thing to say but we are each the sum of our memories. Start taking them away and what do we become? Nepenthe offers various treatments that erase different types of memory from different periods in its characters lives, and the book explores the effect of having them removed.

Tell Me an Ending is an ambitious novel and one that I don’t think quite delivers on its promise. Characters with holes in their memories are perhaps difficult to make compelling. Harkin is successful with most of them, but less so with others, and for these, I found it hard to care that much what happened to them.  

Central narrator Noor, however, is a great character. Flawed and insecure, she pieces together all that is going on at Nepenthe, and through her, we see how the great experiment ultimately fails. 

Overall, if you like the concept of Tell Me an Ending, I would recommend you give it a go. Its ruminations on the nature of memory are compelling and there are some great revelations at the end of the book, most notably the story of Oscar, a man who at the book’s beginning has no recollection of who he is, or how he got to where he is in life. Only that he has lots of money and that somebody is following him. It’s a mystery worth pursuing! 

If you would like to pick up a copy of Tell Me and Ending, you can do so here, in the US and here, in the UK. 

If you’d like to check out my other book reviews, you can do so, here. 

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in order to write this review. 

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This post was last modified on June 14, 2022 11:25 am

Robin Brooks

Dad of boys, player of games, and reader of books. GeekDad and one half of Agents of Sigmar. Prone to starting things I can't fin

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