Finding mom

Leaving Time
Jodi Picoult
Hodder & Stoughton
2014, pp 405
Rs 699

A daughter’s quest for her missing mother forms the crux of Jodi Picoult’s latest novel, Leaving Time. Jenna’s mother, Alice, disappears one night when a caretaker at the elephant sanctuary where she works is apparently trampled to death by an elephant. As Jenna is only three years old at the time, and since her father is sent to a psychiatric ward, she is sent to live with her grandmother.

Ten years later, the girl, now a precocious teenager, is still looking for her mother. And while Jenna is the protagonist, Leaving Time also weaves into the tale multiple points of view. Serenity is a ‘failed’ psychic whose powers seem to have dwindled. And yet, she is hired by Jenna to find her mother. Virgil is an ex-cop who has problems of his own, now working on his own as a private detective when Jenna hires him. Alice herself is a scientist who observed and studied, before her disappearance, the emotions of elephants. Her findings on elephant memory and grief tie in with the range of emotions expressed by the book’s human characters. Leaving Time switches from character to character, revealing their thoughts and feelings, how they deal with each other, and their own secrets.

The writing in the novel is lucid, poetic in parts, poignant in others, although some of Alice’s ruminations and research on elephant memory and emotion could have been clipped. Jenna comes through as an extraordinary teenager, independent and self-reliant and yet, vulnerable. Her quest to find her mother drives her to explore the internet as well as put her faith in a psychic. Despite her single-minded determination to find the truth, the girl is aware of her being alone through it all. Her father barely recognises her and thinks she is her mother. Her grandmother does not encourage her to talk about the night when Alice disappeared. Jenna, however, attempts to overcome these trials. Part of her is still a teenager, headstrong and opinionated. Part of her is conscientious, bold and extremely self-aware —  attributes that guide her in her search.

And, while Serenity has lost touch with her spirit guides, while she has only done cold readings for years and seems in short temper when Jenna meets her, the character has nuanced shades of depth that come through as the novel progresses. Despite the disgrace the psychic suffered on a public platform and her sharp tongue, there are moments of brilliance when she does recover what she once lost and has since coveted.
Virgil Stanhope, who investigated Alice’s disappearance at the elephant sanctuary all those years ago, seems to have, in addition to a drinking problem, secrets of his own. Predictably, he is scornful of Serenity and her dealing with the occult.

As for Alice, the chapters devoted to her reveal a conflicted character, a brilliant scientist and mother, trapped in a troubled marriage.

The book explores the range of feelings and sentiments these characters undergo very well. And yet it is slightly confusing, because there are times when it is difficult to tie in Alice’s observations on elephants to the rest of the tale. That there is plenty of research is beyond doubt, and there is information on the animals that could be interesting. However, the pacing of those chapters and the sheer amount of information also leave their share of problems. It’s obvious that the incidents on elephants tie in with the lives of the humans. Unfortunately, not all of them are as clear while reading the book.
There are many side characters in Leaving Time. There’s Gideon and Grace, a couple working with Alice in the elephant sanctuary, along with Nevvie, Grace’s mother. There are several named elephants, including Maura. There are more detectives, police officers and Alice’s friend Gita. Nearly all of these characters have some sort of history attached to them in varying degrees.

Then there’s the twist at the end. Considering the rather slow pacing of the novel, the twist comes in a rush, leaving far more to the imagination than it should. Not all the characters’ fates are satisfactorily explained, nor about how they got there in the first place. That some of them are where they are because of the paranormal only adds to the confusion. It’s a resolution that may be hard to guess, true, and not necessarily for the right reasons. Some of the book’s more important aspects, like how characters end up as they do, could also be lost in the reams of elephant research. 

Leaving Time could have used a bit of trimming in the story. However, it certainly is an interesting book with an unusual tale of friendship, loss and a young girl’s longing for her mother that time cannot destroy.

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