Love and hatred, life and death, science and fact, lost and found; maybe there is just a thin line that separates them and nothing more, Jodi Picoult’s latest novel Leaving Time talks about all of them and then some more. It’s the story of a 13-year-old girl trying to find her mother, or more accurately what happened to her mother years ago. It’s about memories dead, alive and some dormant, waiting to be unwrapped and then sometimes, more than anything, it’s about elephants. And it talks about the relationship between a mother and her child, be it between humans or elephants.
The novel is about Jenna Metcalf, a young girl and her search for her mother Alice who is lost, presumably dead. All Jenna has are her mother’s journals from 10 years ago, that give her a peek into her mother’s life before the ill-fated night and sometimes jogs Jenna’s own memories that she herself fails to bring to fore. Her mother was a scientist, working on elephants and on how these huge animals – who, as the saying go, “never forget” – deal with the idea of loss and grief. Indeed, once facing trauma the best advice one is given is to try and forget and move on, but what about something that cannot be forgotten about? What about those who can’t forget? Like the magnificent beasts; or those who cannot be forgotten? Like Jenna’s mother. Her determination comes from the belief that her mother loved her most of all when she claims, “My mother would never have left me behind, not willingly. If that’s the last thing I do, I am going to prove it.”
In the pursuit of <g data-gr-id="58">truth</g> Jenna uses all her savings and hires a private detective, <g data-gr-id="57">Virgil</g> and a psychic, Serenity. The idea of hiring a
psychic too comes from Jenna’s mother’s journal: “I always get the funniest expressions from colleagues when I tell them that the best scientists understand that two-three per cent of whatever it is they are studying us simply not quantifiable- it may be magic or alien or random variance, none of which can be truly ruled out. If we are honest as scientists... we must admit there are a few things that we are not supposed to know.” Jenna has her grounds covered, to search for her mother on this earth and beyond.
Virgil and Serenity have their own stories. While one is an ex-cop sometimes suicidal living under a pseudonym, the other is a celebrated
psychic who has lost all her abilities and now lives a discreet life, concocting fake prophesies for her clients. As Jenna, Virgil and Serenity try to find out what happened to Alice, the book goes in depth bringing various stories of relationships between elephants. How elephants live in herds and follow a matriarch, how their death and birth have distinct rituals each, how after the death of calf the mother grieves for days near the body of the calf, how stillbirths are also mourned by elephants, how on the death of a mother elephant a young calf mostly succumbs to starvation and grief.
Picoult’s stories always have that <g data-gr-id="51">humane</g> touch that keeps you turning pages, but this one brings out something more primal than what we call ‘human emotions’, something much more basic – maternal love. A passage from Alice’s journal says, ‘In the wild, a calf under the age of two will not survive without its mother. In the wild, a mother’s job is to teach her daughter everything she will need to know to become a mother herself. In the wild, a mother and daughter stay together until one of them dies.<g data-gr-id="64">’</g>
Jenna’s search for her mother’s whereabouts, reveal alarming secrets about her parent’s relationship, things that Jenna until now was viewing through rose-tinted glasses. As a reader one starts off reading the book expecting it to be <g data-gr-id="72">thriller</g> but soon revels in the knowledge that it touches the paranormal as well. And there lies the twist that hits you from nowhere. Picoult’s stories are known for twists that leave you speechless and yet wanting <g data-gr-id="59">for </g>more, Leaving Time is perhaps the best example in this regard, intermingling science and paranormal.
One who has read Picoult before, especially My Sister’s Keeper will know better than to hope for a happy <g data-gr-id="69">ending</g> but it is not a sad ending either. It brings a smile to your face, Virgil and Serenity even making you laugh out loud sometimes and you keep hanging on to every word till the end.
But as Jenna, Virgil and Serenity discover these fantastic, life-altering truths about themselves, as a reader one cannot help but wonder about the atrocities that the most magnificent animal on earth faces today. And <g data-gr-id="80">here in</g> lies the beauty of Picoult. She has brought up a major concern without really talking about it, the culling and poaching that elephants face today by humans. How elephants are caged for our entertainment, the animals that are fashioned to exist in herds and follow their matriarchs are taken million of miles away from their environment and are made to perform tricks, often being on the receiving end of whiplashes and even electric shock. For someone who does not forget easily, imagine the amount of trauma they would be carrying around, may be, even for eternity.
The concluding lines of Dan Chasson’s poem, The Elephant (that Picoult has used in the novel as well) bring it out beautifully:
‘Worn out by suffering, we lie on our great backs,
tossing grass up to heaven- as a distraction, not a prayer.
That’s not humility you see on our long final journeys:
it’s procrastination. It hurts my heavy body to lie down.<g data-gr-id="47">’</g>