The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin has been a mix of something really interesting and something really disappointing. For a debut novel, it’s clearly hit a nerve with the public and seems to be doing very well, with comments from Jodie Picoult on the front. I purchased it from WH Smith at the airport where it was in a ‘recommended reads by Richard and Judy’ (I think)… it was also buy one get one half price, so that may have had something to do with my decision to buy it!
The premise is really quite simple. Noah is 4 years old, yet he has a distinct sense of ‘wanting to go home’ and as the novel progresses, we learn that he remembers being an 8 year old boy called Tommy. His mother, Janie, confused and hurt by Noah’s insistence that he has another mother and a different life, will do anything to help her son forget his nightmares and move on – even if it’s believing the impossible, trusting an ailing scientist, and allowing her son to meet his other mother.
Guskin has great skill in drawing the reader’s attention in. I was remarkably gripped from beginning to end, even when my enthusiasm for the story line began to falter. The language was not pretentious nor was it patronising, but just right for the ‘popular’ market. The chapters were well paced and of a good length, meaning that you could take breaks where necessary (you know, when normal life intervenes) and pick up where you left off easily enough. The pace of the novel was fantastic, it lingered and took its time, but moved quickly enough that you didn’t feel trapped in any moment. The narration style, following three different adults primarily – Denise, Janie and Anderson – was engaging and adding in characters such as Pauly later added to the suspense. Over all, the book was well paced, well written and quite tense.
I especially enjoyed Guskin’s description and development of Anderson’s aphasia (a degenerative illness in which a person loses their language ability). Anderson is a psychiatrist with a professional and personal obsession with proving that life after death, or life after life, if you prefer, exists and can be scientifically proven. He has dedicated his life to his book and his research, and he needs one final case to make his book accessible to the public. But he is slowly losing his grip with language. What I found really interesting was when the chapters were written from Janie’s perspective, and she noticed something strange about him but couldn’t put her finger on what it was. She thought he was being ‘careful’, when the reader understood that he simply couldn’t find the words that he needed. Aphasia is an illness I knew little about, but Guskin’s understanding and portrayal of it is heart-wrenching, simple and expresses a deep understanding.
Throughout the novel, Guskin brings in other documentation, at least some of which is real – such as the case of Shanti Devi. Stories of other children who have experienced what Noah is going through are dotted throughout, as well as early on an article about a musician who suffered from musical aphasia. These added an interesting atmosphere to the novel, bringing the readers attention away from the personal family drama we become encompassed in as we get to know the characters, and understand that this is not an isolated incident. It adds credence to the mystery of the novel, emphasising the scientific nature of Anderson’s research.
So what went wrong?
There was so much good stuff in this book. I was gripped, I like the author, the mystery was thorough, and a lot of the emotions and incidences really heart wrenching. So why am I sat here more than a little disappointed?
I think it’s because it was too obvious. There wasn’t really a mystery to be solved. You learned early on the theories Anderson has about Noah’s condition, and whilst Janie seems reluctant to acquiesce, the reader can see far more objectively. I think 90% of my issues come from the front cover and blurb. They give away the mystery! They tell you that Noah is a 4 year old boy who remembers being an 8 year old boy called Tommy. This isn’t really revealed until about a third of the way through the novel, so all the earlier mystery that comes from the pre school and the psychiatrist etc is undermined by the fact that you know already that Noah has these other memories. It’s really frustrating, because it could have been far more intricately a mystery had this not been revealed – you would have spent time questioning Janie’s parenting, whether Noah was really her son, her sanity and his sanity. Instead you say back, and every clue was so obviously pointing to what the blurb suggested that you kind of just got a bit bored. As a result, by the time Anderson comes in with his diagnosis and you start solving the mystery of Tommy’s death, you’re not really engaged because you know with certainty that Noah is remembering a previous life. There’s no room for doubt or your own conclusions. Noah mentions ‘Pauly’ really early on, so the minute you meet Paul, you know he murdered Tommy. It was all just too wrapped up immediately. Whilst it was gripping and suspenseful, it was more a need to know how Guskin was going to explain the phenomenon, rather than working it out. It was almost too scientific – a report of a fictional incident rather than a novel. Whilst that fits in with Anderson’s character, it didn’t do much for me by way of engaging me in the story.
I think that Guskin still has a way to go to know how to craft a story that truly takes the reader on an adventure of which they don’t already know the conclusion. Her powerful displays of a mother’s love, another mother’s grief, aphasia, suicide and accidental murder are sensitive and moving, but there is that sense of disappointment throughout because nothing is really a surprise.
That said, I like her writing style, and the subject matter was interesting. With a little polishing, I think I could really grow to like this author.
If you’re not as picky as me, this is definitely a book worth reading, as much for what I learned from it as for the story.