Book review: The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

(image courtesy Pan MacMillan Australia)
(image courtesy Pan MacMillan Australia)

 

In the West, where sensitivity to free flowing spirituality often finds itself subsumed to logic and consumerism more often than not, the idea of reincarnation is often treated with outright scepticism and ridicule, or at the very least, benign neglect.

For some reason, the idea that we are not wholly unique individuals doesn’t sit well in a culture that has largely surrendered itself to the worship of the lone wolf over the communal pack, elevating a person’s solo identity in the process to the status of a sacred entity to be nurtured, indulged and valued for its own intrinsic worth.

But what if, like four year old Noah Zimmerman, who lives with his architect single mum Janie in the suburbs of Washington DC, you have known since birth that you are not entirely yourself, that there is another life, another consciousness within you?

How does that impact concepts like standalone individual worth, of belonging to one time and one family only? How do you square that against the cult of individuality which presupposes everyone’s innate uniqueness and make no allowance whatsoever for deviations from the norm?

“She tried to calm herself. ‘You’re going to have to take a bath now. You know that, right?’
He shuddered at the word. Egg was rolling his face, oozing into the hollow of his neck. ‘Don’t go,’ he said, blue eyes nailing her to the wall of his need.” (P. 39)

Of course, in the burly rough-and-tumble of every day life, where Janie has to work hard to keep her architecture business afloat as well as looking after Noah who has issues aplenty, these kinds of intense existential deliberations are not a luxury she can indulge.

But with Noah increasingly demonstrating all manner of unhealthy behaviour such as a refusal to take baths of any kind – he has a massive water phobia, source unknown – and a marked inability to sleep through the night without sweat-soaking nightmares, Janie has no choice but to deal with Noah’s repeated, anguished requests to go home to his real mama.

So extreme are Noah’s mood swings and acting out that Janie becomes desperate, seeking not so much a spiritual explanation as a medical one, begging doctors, psychiatrists and child behaviourists to help her get to the bottom of what ails the son she loves more than life itself.

But no answers are forthcoming and it’s not until she comes across an article by Dr Jerry Anderson, a man who has attracted ridicule from the rest of the scientific community for his thesis that there are children who eerily and accurately remember past lives in stunningly vivid detail, that she begins to wonder if there isn’t something more to Noah’s obsession with going “home”.

 

 

Jerry for his part, mourning the loss of his wife Sheila and suffering the advancing effects of Aphasia which is robbing him of his ability to recognise and use words, a grievous loss for such a learned man, is eager to explore the American case he needs to finish the final book he will ever write on his life’s work, acceptable to an interested publisher.

Remarkably the two disparate individuals come together in a bid to work out what is making Noah mourn a life that Western beliefs essentially say he could never have had?

The Forgetting Time is an utterly riveting read on a lot of levels.

It’s not only the exploration of possible past lives that is intriguing; it’s the deeply poetic, heartfelt way in which Sharon Guskin writes every last passage in the book.

There is a vibrant sense throughout this highly-readable, intelligently-underpinned book that she understands to the core of her being what it means to be a mother forced to watch impotently while her son suffers and she can seemingly do nothing to assist him.

“And if anger and fear could persist – then also, of course, stronger emotions could as well, such as love. Was that what drew some people to reincarnate within their own families? Was that what caused some children to remember their past connections? And if so,  then perhaps this phenomenon, thee children’s memories he had studied so carefully, was not against the laws of nature, after all.” (P. 340)

She also intimately and movingly conveys the grief of another mother, mourning the loss of her son who may or may not have an unthinkable, to Western minds at least, connection to her son Noah.

And finally she movingly describes story after story of children remembering past lives where they were mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, lives that often ended in violent painful deaths but which were also, more often than not, bathed in love too.

What causes these souls to come back in the body of another? Is it love or unfinished business that propels them to share another persons’ physical being, an existential sharing that often trails off and disappears as the child reaches five or six.

Guskin’s real talent is taking an extraordinarily outlandish premise, at least to our modern Western disconnected sensibilities – in many countries there is a wise acceptance that life can take many forms, not all of which meet our limited human understanding – and making it seem real, possible, and all-too-relatable.

She writes with emotional resonance and elegant insight, grounding some fairly weight musings in everyday concerns of identity, family, love and parenting, and in the process reminding us, and it appears from current spiritual malaise that we do need reminding, that “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

Guskin does a supremely impressive, deeply-moving and exquisitely-well written job, in her debut novel no less, of tapping us all collectively on the shoulder and persuading us to take much-overdue look at how varied and infinitely possible life can be.

 

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