Stephanie Jones: Book Review - The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

Publish Date
Thursday, 3 March 2016, 4:07PM
By Stephanie Jones

More than fifty years ago, a doctor at the University of Virginia began an investigation that has, to date, amassed more than 2,500 cases of children reporting past-life memories. The children have recounted memories that align with a particular deceased person, and recognized members of that person’s family. Some have birthmarks or defects that match wounds or marks on the body of the dead person.

This research inspired Sharon Guskin’s The Forgetting Time, which intersperses the fictional story of a four-year-old boy with excerpts from Life Before Life, a book produced from the UVA study that records cases from India to the United States. Guskin’s tale begins in warm climes, with a flirtation between two holidaymakers in Trinidad, and comes thudding back to Earth in New York City, where single mother Janie, an architect, lives with Noah, the product of that brief union.

It’s not Janie’s singleness that is her challenge in raising Noah but his special needs, which are of a type no one can pinpoint. She withdrew from her single mothers’ group when her anecdotes about her son began to draw blank stares rather than understanding nods.

Noah’s phobia of water is so severe that his teacher complains about his hygiene. He constantly tells Janie that he wants to go “home” to his “other mother”; he has depths of knowledge of no known origin – Harry Potter spells, lizards, baseball; and he speaks explicitly about guns and abuse. When he does so at school, the faculty makes a firm request that Janie remove him and pursue specialist therapy, and after a parade of the usual incompetent suspects she arrives with Dr Jerome Anderson, a bereft widower who quickly alights on the many familiar markers in Noah’s accounts. He’s heard similar stories thousands of times before.

Anderson can be read as a stand-in for Dr Jim Tucker, the current head of the UVA study and author of Life Before Life, but unlike what we can presume of the real researcher, Anderson is an outcast in the academic community, a figure of barely concealed scorn for his abandonment of ‘real’ science in favour of what his peers view as quasi-supernatural pursuits. Moreover, he sits less comfortably with solitude than Janie does, his grief over the death of his wife compounded by his recent diagnosis of primary progressive aphasia, a form of dementia that affects the brain’s language centre.

Noah, then, might be Anderson’s last opportunity to validate his life’s work. From Janie’s point of view, the problem is less lofty: she can’t very well raise a son who is convinced he doesn’t belong to her. It is only a matter of time and a little legwork before the trio is connected with another family several states away, and another mother still trying to get her arms around a son who eludes her.

If it doesn’t scale the same sublime peaks as Kate Atkinson’s similarly themed Life After Life, The Forgetting Time is nonetheless an often suspenseful, consistently empathetic and thoughtful missing-pieces study of a topic that is largely ignored, and rarely treated seriously in public discourse.

Especially fascinating are the questions that Anderson, despite decades of examination, continues to grapple with: “Some children speak of spending time in the areas in which they died, picking their parents from the people that pass by. Others are born into their own families, as their own grandchildren or nieces or nephews. We have speculated that may be due to . . . to love.”

A note of warning: this is a story in which great misfortune befalls a child. Guskin doesn’t belabour the event, which is the crux of the drama, but she does describe it clearly. Readers with particular sensitivity to this topic should be advised.

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