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Jo Harkin on Strange Bodies, a thriller that delves into life’s biggest questions

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Jo Harkin, author of Tell Me an Ending. Photo by McCarthy/Robaczynski

Jo Harkin, author of Tell Me an Ending. Photo by McCarthy/Robaczynski

Jo Harkin, author of Tell Me an Ending. Photo by McCarthy/Robaczynski

Strange Bodies begins with Nicholas Slopen, an academic specialising in the work of Samuel Johnson, visiting his old girlfriend, Susanna. The problem is Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months. The man who turns up at Susanna’s door — a psychiatric hospital patient — looks nothing like Nicholas. Yet there is something convincing about him.

Nicholas’ leaves Susanna his story, which begins with his being asked to verify a cache of previously undiscovered letters. Slopen can see the handwriting and prose are unmistakeably Johnsonian — but the paper they’re written on is brand new.

There follows an extraordinary tale of forgery, conspiracy, and disturbing experiments — both the thought and the real-life variety. Confused captives held in basements of London townhouses. Russians on the run. Secretive scientists. But the novel is not only a suspenseful thriller. It’s equally at home as a gothic horror, a metaphysical meditation or a haunting tragedy.

When I first read Strange Bodies, I’d started writing my first speculative fiction story. In the world of my novel, people are able to delete short periods of time from their memories. But it’s discovered that these deletions are not necessarily permanent, and a selection of characters are faced with the question of whether they want their unwanted and unknown memories back. I wanted to get into questions of how memory relates to our sense of self — our personal story — without getting so ramblingly academic that I lost track and lost all the readers along with it. I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge.

Revelatory

At that point Strange Bodies arrived on my doorstep, looking like a literary thriller, but turning out to be far more revelatory. For me, its power lies in the intersection of philosophy and humanity. Even as it delves into the nature of the personality — wondering if identity is something that can be reverse-engineered from language — its exploration remains tightly bound in Nicholas’s own life.

Here was a novel tackling the biggest of big questions — who are we? — while staying anchored in the character (if not necessarily the body) of the curious, compelling Nicholas. At no point did the themes grow so big that they toppled: the abstract was made immediate, moving and human. From this, I took inspiration for my own novel. I’m not going to say it was an unqualified success, but any success I did have, I owe to Strange Bodies for showing me the exhilarating possibilities contained within the body of a single novel.

‘Tell Me an Ending’ by Jo Harkin, published by Hutchinson Heinemann, is out now

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