The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

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Reviewed by Harriet

If I tell you that this book takes the concept of reincarnation as its central premise, will you stop reading straight away? You’d be missing out if you did, because this is a fascinating novel and the scientific research that underpins it is pretty hard to explain away.

This is the story of Janie, a single mother, and her four-year-old son Noah. He’s a clever, funny little boy, but he’s causing his mother, and his school, increasing amounts of anxiety. He loves Janie, his ‘Mommy-Mom’, but he’s always asking when they can go and find his other mother, his brother Charlie, and his other home. He has a phobia about water, so much so that Janie simply cannot bath him, he talks about Harry Potter books and guns, two things Janie has never mentioned to him or allowed him access to. In fact as the novel begins, his teachers are so concerned about him that they insist he sees a psychiatrist, who diagnoses early onset schizophrenia and writes out a prescription for heavy-duty drugs, which Janie really doesn’t want to give Noah. But she’s getting desperate.

So, when she runs across an online reference to a Professor Jerome Anderson, who has spent most of his working life investigating cases in which children appear to remember their past lives, she’s desperate enough to agree to meet him and allow herself to be guided by him in uncovering the truth behind Noah’s apparently inexplicable claims. And, after some intensive research and one devastating red herring, the three of them find themselves knocking on the door of a woman whose beloved son Tommy disappeared without trace a few years before Noah was born. Denise has always refused to believe that Tommy is dead, and her first reaction to Noah’s claims is furious disbelief, but in the end she and Janie are forced to believe that what the child says about his ‘real’ home and family cannot be explained in any other way.

Maybe you’ll have to suspend your own disbelief when reading this novel, but don’t let the unusual premise put you off. Guskin has not only done her research — the novel is interspersed with extracts from scholarly books on the subject — but also convincingly imagines what it would be like if your beloved child constantly told you that you were not his real mother, or if a totally unknown little boy turned up on your doorstep not only claiming to be the son you have refused to believe is dead but also describes his own murder and the whereabouts of his bones. The denial, anger and pain of both mothers is moving believable, as is the effect on Denise’s surviving son and her estranged husband. As for the police, they are grateful to Noah for telling them where to find the remains of poor Tommy, but insist on viewing him as an unusually high-level psychic, a concept they are familiar with, and cannot accept that he is remembering a past life.

Running in parallel to the main plot is an account of the history and present problems of Professor Anderson. A brilliant and initially much admired researcher and teacher, he has damaged his reputation by concentrating on an area thought to be peculiar and beyond the pale of true science. He has spent most of his life collecting accounts of children who have identified their previous families and demonstrated knowledge about them that they simply could not have gained any other way. But the majority of the cases he has found have been in India, Thailand and other far-Eastern countries, where reincarnation is taken for granted. For this reason, he is particularly anxious to include Noah’s story, as a rare example of such things happening in a Western country too. But Anderson has his own problem — he is suffering from a form of Alzheimers called semantic aphasia, in which the sufferer gradually and increasingly forgets common everyday words. Very scary for anyone, but particularly so for someone whose life has been spent reading and writing.

So the underlying theme of this thoughtful and interesting novel is remembering, or failing to remember. Anderson tells Janie that children who have these clear memories of previous personalities almost invariably forget them as they reach the age of five or six, and at the end we find that this has proved to be true in Noah’s case. But we’ve also seen the powerfully healing effect, for him and for his mother, of his vivid recollections being validated.

I’d encountered convincing real life stories of this kind before, so it was fascinating to find them being treated in this way in a novel. I enjoyed it enormously, and I think you would too, whatever your belief system may be.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Read an interview with Sharon in our BookBuzz section – here.

Sharon Guskin, The Forgetting Time (Mantle, 2016). 978-1509806799, 368pp., hardback.

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