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Tell Me an Ending (SF) - Jo Harkin ****

The idea of wiping an event from someone's memory is a long-standing science fiction trope. It has cropped up regularly in both written SF and movies from Men in Black to Total Recall. Usually, it is approached from the viewpoint of the person whose memory has been altered as they slowly uncover the surprising realities of their past - but Jo Harkin has managed to revitalise the concept with a totally different approach - and the result is impressive.

More often that not, the memory wiping in fiction has been imposed and is a secret procedure. Here, and most like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which is referenced in this novel), it's all open and above board (or so it seems). But there are two particularly clever aspects to Harkin's take on the subject that raise it above an Eternal Sunshine clone. Firstly, a major focus is the company Nepenthe that undertakes the procedure - the uncomfortable juxtaposition of a modern corporate's attempted positioning as a caring organisation with human interactions is very well handled. 

Secondly, there are two types of procedure. Some customers know that they have had a memory removed. Others, though - brought in at night - no longer know that they have had the procedure. This opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities when it's discovered that the procedure can be reversed - and Nepenthe are legally forced to contact clients who don't know they've had a memory erased to ask if they want it restored. This is a brilliant twist that really drives the narrative.

There were issues. The book is structured as five strands that eventually intertwine. Each strand has a separate chapter with its own set of characters. This meant that after reading the opening chapter focussed on what is arguably the most important character, Noor, a psychologist at Nepenthe, we then have to read 85 pages before we return to Noor - by then, to be honest, I'd forgotten half of what happened in that first strand. Even at the end of the book I was still getting the different strands confused. Now, this might have been a clever meta-comment on the nature and fragility of memory - which is obviously a subject at the heart of the book - but it did make reading it unnecessarily hard work.

Apart from that, I did think that the old epithet of 'show don't tell' could have been followed better - there was a lot of internal monologue. And I disliked the affectation of formatting dialogue from the past without any speech marks, which just made it difficult to read.

However, these are relatively minor things. Harkin gives us a thought-provoking exploration of the grey area of whether we should undertake a procedure that a person thinks is good for them, but may not actually be (a consideration that could be applied to a number of existing socially-driven medical procedures), as well as helping us think about the nature of memory and how much it influences who we are as individuals. The final two sections are gripping as everything starts to come together and things that have been happening that were mysterious are finally explained. Despite my dislike of the structure, this is one of the best novels I've read this year.

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Review by Brian Clegg - See all of Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly digest for free here

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