Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, January 7, 2016

Thursday, January 7, 2016: Maximum Shelf: The Forgetting Time

Flatiron Books: The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

Flatiron Books: The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

Flatiron Books: The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

Flatiron Books: The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

The Forgetting Time

by Sharon Guskin

Although reincarnation is a central tenet of several Asian religions, the idea remains the stuff of myth in mainstream Western culture. However, a handful of researchers have documented multiple cases of young children recalling details that seem to come from the lives of deceased strangers, and even meetings between the children and the families of the deceased that take on the qualities of reunions. Science has neither proven nor debunked these cases. Now, first-time novelist Sharon Guskin looks at choices, regret and second chances in the powerful story of a little boy who remembers life as someone else and the adults who struggle to help him find peace.

Although her friends continued to make optimistic remarks about her relationship prospects, Janie gave up on dating at the age of 38 when her mother died. To escape the well-meaning but misguided comments, she decides to spend her 39th birthday on a solo vacation in Trinidad. Over a dish of spicy goat curry, she meets and connects with Jeff, a traveling businessman whose last name she never catches. Because Jeff is married, a brief fling is all they can have. When Janie turns up pregnant, she keeps the baby and considers little Noah a precious gift.

However, Noah grows into a difficult, baffling child. His preschool teachers have always dropped hints to Janie about his hygiene, but when Noah starts talking about playing with guns and having his head held underwater, the school's director threatens to call Child Protective Services. Terrified, Janie confesses the truth, that even she does not understand her child. Noah tells stories about a grandfather he doesn't have, a lake house where they've never been. He cries and begs to go home when they're already there, and he asks, "Is my other mother coming soon?" From a practical standpoint, Noah's overwhelming fear of water poses the greatest challenge, turning bath time into a maelstrom of trauma for son and mother both and leading Janie to put off bathing him as long as possible. Mollified but concerned, the director insists Noah not return to the school until he spends serious time with a therapist.

Janie tries. She takes Noah to therapist after therapist, with results ranging from no answers to a diagnosis of early-onset schizophrenia. Desperate for an explanation that won't involve an antipsychotic prescription for her four-year-old, Janie turns to the Internet. Her research takes a surprising direction, leading her to Dr. Jerome Anderson, an authority on the topic of past-life memories.

Anderson has given his professional life over to researching the phenomenon of past-life memories in children, subjecting himself to the mockery of his peers. He has just received a death sentence not only for his body, but for his mind: he has primary progressive aphasia, a degenerative condition that affects the brain's language center and causes its victims to lose the ability to speak, read and write. Anderson may live another 10 years, but he will only be able to care for himself for another six or seven, and he has already begun losing words. When his editor calls and offers to turn his research into a book, Anderson sees a last chance at preserving his legacy, but it comes with the condition that he find an airtight, recent case from America. Most of his research comes from Thailand and India, countries whose people accept reincarnation as possible, and American cases are tough to find. Then Janie calls.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, a mother has spent years grieving her missing child while a killer walks free.

Whether or not the reader believes in life after death, Guskin offers an intimate and suspenseful portrait of a family in crisis and a man struggling to take control of what little life remains to him. Janie's conflict centers around a universal parenting dilemma: How can she do what is best for her child when she must choose between impossible options, either of which could harm him? As a single mother with no system for support, Janie can call the shots but also knows she carries full responsibility for the outcome. Her partnership with Anderson is fraught with distrust as she dismisses his theories but remains unable to find a better explanation for Noah's behavior. For his part, Anderson grapples with his desire to create a lasting legacy, and hides his condition from Janie, knowing deep down that he may have taken the case for the wrong reasons.

Intercut with excerpted case studies from actual past-life researcher Dr. Jim Tucker's Life Before Life: Children's Memories of Previous Lives, Guskin's drama is honest, even comforting, but never gimmicky. She challenges readers to dream beyond conventional boundaries and consider that human consciousness may be more complicated and far-reaching than science or Western religion believe. At the same time, her grasp of the beauty and ferocity of a mother's love grounds the story in a frame anyone can accept. The complex but graceful knitting together of the story's loose ends will give the reader a sense of balance and lightness that comes from remembering how many unexplained wonders the universe has in store for all of us. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Flatiron Books, $25.99, hardcover, 9781250076427, February 2, 2016

Flatiron Books: The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

Sharon Guskin: Beyond Conventional Boundaries

photo: David Jacobs

Sharon Guskin's debut novel is The Forgetting Time (Flatiron Books). In addition to writing fiction, she has worked as a writer and producer of documentary films, including Stolen and On Meditation. She's been a fellow at Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center and Ragdale, and has degrees from Yale University and the Columbia University School of the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.

How did you get interested in the subject of past lives? Are you a believer?

I became very curious about past and future lives when I worked at a refugee camp in Thailand as a young woman. For many of my Lao and Cambodian students, this wasn't just a concept; it was reality. When we said our goodbyes, they called out, "See you next life," and I remember that phrase really stuck with me at that poignant moment: they weren't (entirely) joking.

Years later, when my children were very young, I was working as a hospice volunteer; the question of what happens when you die was especially pressing to these patients, of course. Around this time I stumbled across a book called Old Souls, which was about Dr. Ian Stevenson and the many mind-boggling cases he researched in which young children made specific, verified statements about being an actual person in a previous lifetime. And I started to wonder: What made my sons the way they are, with their very particular, very different personalities, attractions and fears? The children Stevenson researched seemed to have deep attachments to people from that other life, and I imagined how difficult it would be for me if one of my sons longed for another mother. And this story began to percolate in my mind.

When I began writing the book, I was merely interested in Stevenson's work; I thought it would make a good story about how we are all connected to each other. By the end of the process, after spending so much time absorbing the work of Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Jim Tucker, seeing the exhaustive way they went about verifying their cases, and getting to know Jim a bit, it was hard to imagine a more plausible explanation for these cases. These are very cautious, serious men. As the self-described skeptic Jesse Bering pointed out on, "I must say, when you actually read [these cases] firsthand, many are exceedingly difficult to explain away by rational, non-paranormal means." And, from a personal standpoint, so many people have told me their own stories during the years I've been working on this book--about a quarter of the people I've talked to have some kind of amazing personal tale to tell. So, yes, I'd say the questions I've been pondering have led me to make some of my own conclusions. But finally, I'm just asking questions: Is this what happens? What does it mean for the way we live our lives, if it's true?

While The Forgetting Time doesn't fall into the genre of speculative fiction, some potential readers may view it that way because of the subject matter.

So many stories have transcendental or "out there" elements, from the Greek gods to Shakespeare's weird sisters and ghosts to more contemporary stories like Beloved, The Lovely Bones, The Time Traveler's Wife, Life Before Life and Cloud Atlas. I think many people can relate to the themes of The Forgetting Time--ultimately this is a story about a mother and a child, and how far we'd go to help those we love. So in that sense, I think it's as grounded in "reality" as any novel. You can even read the story as an unusual metaphor for how connected we all are.

I'm just a storyteller. But the real cases that inspired me are so wild and compelling that I did think people might be interested in them, so I included some of them from Dr. Tucker's book.

How much do your parenting experiences inform Denise and Janie's experiences in the novel?

I never had to go through the kind of difficulties that Janie faced, or anything like Denise's trauma, but there's no doubt that my experience as a mother is in the DNA of this book. It has changed me, both from the little things, like getting peed in the face the first time you change a diaper (I have boys, obviously!) and the big things, the way you realize pretty much immediately that you'd do anything for this other being, that what you thought were your limits or comfort zones aren't relevant anymore. And my kids can be pretty funny, so I confess I stole a few of their lines.

I imagine you had to do quite a bit of research for the novel.

The research into past-life memories was fun, actually, and sometimes mind-blowing. Dr. Tucker was hugely helpful, discussing his process with me and answering all my questions. I've listened to some extraordinary cases and have talked with mothers of children who spoke of past lives, and have read fascinating books that ranged from more academic texts like Dr. Stevenson's Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects and Death and Personal Survival by philosopher Robert Almeder to personal stories like Soul Survivor.

Aphasia was both easier and more painful to research, as we have a family member with semantic aphasia, so I have seen how it progresses and how frustrating it can be. But he's also inspiring to me, as his peace of mind and vibrant presence remains intact, even when his language is severely compromised. He joked that he should get a consulting fee.

What's next for your writing career?

I'm working on a new novel and some shorter nonfiction pieces. And I'm continuing to collect the stories people tell me; even before the book has come out, people have started reaching out to share their own experiences or things their children have said, so I'm creating a space for readers to post them. There are a lot of amazing stories out there.

I'm an older debut author; I've been writing for over 20 years, and I'm really thrilled to have this book out there now for people to read. I'd like people to know that story, too, as it might be encouraging for some other mature and dedicated writers: keep going! --Jaclyn Fulwood

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