Memento Mori

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Pub Date Aug 13 2024 | Archive Date Sep 13 2024

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Don’t look back.

Did Eurydice want to return from the underworld? Did anybody ask?

In this brilliant portrait of rage and resilience, a Korean woman tries to connect with her younger brother and grapple with family tragedy through bedtime stories that weave together Greek mythology, neuroscience, and tales from their grandmother’s slipping memory.

Recasting the myths of Eurydice, Orpheus, Persephone, and Hades through the lens of a Korean American family, Eunice Hong’s debut novel offers a moving and darkly funny exploration of grief, love, and the inescapability of death.

Don’t look back.

Did Eurydice want to return from the underworld? Did anybody ask?

In this brilliant portrait of rage and resilience, a Korean woman tries to connect with her younger brother and...

Advance Praise

“Memento Mori is an unexpected and thrilling story that features myth without being just a simple retelling. Eunice Hong reimagines the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice beautifully, deftly weaving it into a stunning narrative of one person’s attempt to come to terms with memory, history and trauma, life and death. For all the book utilizes Eurydice to explore these themes, it’s Hong’s Persephone that stole all my attention.” —Liv Albert, creator, host, and producer of Let's Talk About Myths, Baby! and author of the bestselling Greek Mythology: The Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes Handbook

“A beautifully written and impressively candid meditation on family secrets and the ties that bind, the slipperiness of memory and family lore, and resilience and endurance found in even the unlikeliest of circumstances.” —Helen Wan, author of The Partner Track

“As the title of this exquisite work suggests, Memento Mori is a testament to the presence and power of death in life—here, specifically, in the life of a Korean American family with roots in North Korea. From the opening pages, I was stunned by the author’s ferocious intellect and clarity. Though the text is fragmented and the narrator unnamed, each line holds the reader close, like a confidante, with the implicit promise that all will be revealed, that every piece of this sometimes baffling puzzle will matter and add up to a story that is devastating and whole. There will be grief and gallows humor. There will be knee-buckling trauma. There will be losses that leave this nameless narrator and her family forever scarred. But even as her oblique telling delivers on its grim promise, we realize that this clan, mostly through the tenacity of its women, is wired to endure. Whether the source of loss is war or a despotic regime, date rape or accidental brain damage, the aftermath will be both brutal and bonding. Once this ‘less than perfect life’ subsides, the survivors will carry on ‘with sadness and relief.’ And as the very structure of this book makes clear, memory will be their vehicle, missing pieces and all.” —Aimee Liu, author of Glorious Boy

“Rage, grief, shame, and guilt wrapped up in one perfect Homeric simile for memory, trauma, and Asian-Americanness. Memento Mori was everything I wanted and more: a brilliant work of art that is just as insightful and darkly funny as it is beautiful.”—Maia Lee-Chin, author of Et Cetera: An Illustrated Guide to Latin Phrases

“Memento Mori is an unexpected and thrilling story that features myth without being just a simple retelling. Eunice Hong reimagines the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice beautifully, deftly weaving it...

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ISBN 9781636281872
PRICE $17.95 (USD)

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Featured Reviews

It has been a very long time since a story was able to leave such a deep impact on me. I can’t even remember the last time I finished the last word of a novel and just stared into nothingness for a while. I don’t say this lightly but Memento Mori is by every definition a work of art.

Hong’s intellect simply shines through the pages as she weaves together ageless myths with a tale about grief, rage, survival, resilience, and most importantly, memories and how they shape us, relieve us, and deceive us.

Let me make it clear here that the briefness of this review does not reflect my lack of interest in Eunice Hong’s debut but my inability to find words good enough to describe it. Memento Mori is a story that stunned me from the first page and left me lost for words by the last. It’s an exquisite work of art that you should experience yourself because no review, blurb, or synopsis will do it justice.

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Memento Mori was a stunning work that wove myth retellings through the tale of a young woman grappling with grief and loss as her family sought to deal with a tragedy that had a deep impact on them all. The prose was easy reading on the one hand but full of emotional impact at the same time. The segmented flow of the story also contributed to the feeling of disruption and disjointedness and helped to highlight the narrator's disordered mind as she tried to make sense of everything that had happened to her. It is a fairly stark story and the subject matter may not be for everyone, but I recommend it to readers looking for a raw portrayal of grief told in a lyrical, captivating way. I am giving it 4.5 stars.

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Thank you to NetGalley and Red Hen Press for an ARC of this novel.

The Latin phrase ‘memento mori’ translates to ‘remember you must die.’ Its use, spiritually and artistically, dates back to the ancient Romans, and it is a theme common to both pagan myth and Christian doctrine. It is two-sided in meaning, meant as both a comfort and a warning of human frailty and insignificance. Considering how short and nasty life could be for common people, until very recently, memento mori was woven into the cultural fabric. Now, most people prefer to forget that death is imminent and inescapable, and are encouraged to do so.

The unnamed narrator in this pensive novel admits to an overwhelming fear of death, and struggles constantly with the choice between living or not, a choice that she will also have to confront on behalf of others. But this isn’t a story about depression so much as a story about resilience, about holding on and letting go. We slowly learn her life story and family history back several generations. She is Korean-American, born to educated and affluent parents who maintain home and work in both worlds, but whose two children, she and younger brother M. , were raised in the United States by their beloved paternal grandmother.

The story centres on her relationship with her brother, whom she parented alongside their grandmother when their parents were in Korea. Much of her memory of their childhood has to do with their cherished bedtime ritual, in which she recounts mostly faithful versions of myths, especially the story of Eurydice and Orpheus. Unlike the traditional version, in which love spurs the hero to save his beloved from death, she raises the question that no one asked Eurydice because the story is about Orpheus: did she want to return? Maybe Eurydice was content in the underworld. The moral that she draws from it is ‘don’t look back,’ because it is dangerous. But so is not looking back.

The Eurydice story frames the larger themes about dying, the ‘underworld’ that many visit even while on earth, the ways of trauma, loss, grief and mourning. The ways of remembering and the ways of forgetting.

As she tells it, the story covers about 20 years of the narrator’s life, from late childhood to her early 30s, much of it in memory. It is ostensibly a record of her life intended for her brother to read, explaining her periods of withdrawal as well as her memories of him, their parents and grandparents, their “foreignness” in both Korea and the United States. She speaks also of her paternal grandmother’s escape from North Korea, the accident that changed her, the way she repeatedly told her granddaughter, even as a young child, that she wanted to die. And of the friends who sustained her, and those who indelibly harmed her. These, too, are not named, and the most evil are identified only by the em dash.

The author imaginatively interweaves myth, astronomy, custom, neuroscience and philosophy of mind in its telling. She writes clearly and simply, while conveying the narrator’s complex inner life. It is a masterful debut.

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This novel is a moving narrative, where the unnamed narrator tells the story of her life, framed within the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I initially picked this one up due to the Greek mythology theme, but found myself enjoying the day-to-day experiences of the narrator even more than the chapters focused on retelling the myth.

Reading this book was an emotional roller-coaster. I found myself laughing at the beginning of the book, and then crying by the end - this will be a book I revisit when I need a cathartic cry. The exploration of grief, depression, and the loss of self is handled with sensitivity, while emphasising the importance of connecting with the ones we love.

Though it's only June, this is likely to be my book of the year.

Thank you to Eunice Hong and Red Hen Press for the e-arc, in exchange for an honest review.

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Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC of this book.

This story was a beautiful marriage of meaning and form, with a structure that repeatedly circled back on itself, mirroring the neuroscience of the memories rewriting themselves through trauma and grief. Building the story of the narrator piece by piece made the pacing a bit slow at times, but putting the pieces together across the varying timelines did keep me coming back to the book through a heavy series of tragedies for the narrator.

I think the question the book ultimately asks is: what are the responsibilities of the griever to the subject of grief? I'm not sure I have found the answer, but I appreciated the exploration of the question.

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My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley and the author for allowing Memento Mori to be a 'Read Now' option there, I had seen snippets of news of the book forthcoming because I follow L. E. Jenks-Brown / @GreekMythComix who's coloring book I backed on Kickstarter in 2022.

It should be of interest that a pre-order of Memento Mori comes with a Eurydice & Orpheus bookmark designed by L. E. Jenks-Brown / @GreekMythComix and a signed bookplate that has Cerberus on it too! After you preorder, fill out the form for the Memento Mori Bookmark+ Bookplate!

I read the bulk of the book in the past two days, diving into a narrative of a Korean American woman who calls upon the Muse of grief (is there a Muse of grief? Melpomene, perhaps) as she begins to recall telling her brother bed time stories of Persephone and Demeter, Eurydice and Orpheus.

We learn about her and her family, that she's endured not only his death - but the death of her grandpa and that her struggle to survive and endure in this one life is uprooted, not only by tragic death like in the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus- but by rapes as Persephone's was.

That none of those things mark a ending, or a victory, but another turn of the wheel of survival and what that means to her. That her hopes for herself, for her family and her mother and father's mother are sometimes unspeakable and tragic but like Orpheus, she can look back and live to find another way - or not.

Someone who knows the myths will tell where and how they are changed (Persephone's swallowed seeds pomegranate become golden and bejeweled threads that trap her to a life and realm she truly dreads -Eurydice is a girl who lives on a mountain with her family and flees a marriage with a man who kills her family and her) but myths, stories, must change because the people who tell them change from one generation to the next.

History tells us that those ancient people want to be remembered even as we live, "remember death", memento mori. No one can tell you what life means, or where to go with it, or what to do with it. It's yours. Live your life, but remember you will die. Remember that you will someday, sometimes only be remembered by the family stories you pass on to others, be they the friends, or enemies, who go on to tell them even to others after your death.

Until those who come after us might not even remember our names (I liked the perceptive device of using initials instead of names).

Readers will tell a author "This book saved my life" and it isn't something to be dismissed -books, stories, folklore, myths matter in our lives in ways we don't truly have the science or knowledge yet to explain to ourselves or fully to others. Yet they go on mattering and being told, living with us and sometimes...sometimes stories, words die out.

What is a Muse after all, only a daughter of memory.

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