There’s a lot I share with my mother: her father’s line’s dark colouring, a streak of stubbornness with a yearning to better the world, as well as a love of animals, history and literature. Unsurprisingly perhaps, we also share a love of women’s stories, a touch of the romantic and a deep appreciation of the writers who can weave these elements into a entrapping narrative, one of them being Jodi Picoult.
Leaving Time is Jodi’s latest offering, and what I selected for my mother’s Christmas present. Where could I go wrong–it is the story of mothers and daughters, and the elephants both of them loved (and an animal my mother also loves).
I actually began this reading process with the earlier released novella, Larger than Life, which tells the story of the mother of this story, Alice, researcher and neurobiologist, in the time she was working on her doctorate in Botswana. Alice’s work is on the behavioural aspects of elephant herds, the remarkable memories of matriarchs, and the communal raising and supporting of calves and the herd. This is a snapshot into the life of the scientist, of the empathetic and compassionate woman who rescues an orphaned elephant calf, learning a hard lesson along the way.
Leaving Time brings us Alice’s teenage daughter, Jenna, who has spent her life searching for her mother, missing in the aftermath of death due to an elephant trampling at the Elephant Sanctuary she loved. By chance, Jenna stumbles upon a psychic, Serenity, whose close connection to the spirit world once made her famous for finding missing persons. After a spectacular fall from grace, Serenity had retreated, her connection broken, until Jenna appears on her doorstep.
When turned away, Jenna hunts down the last detective on the case, Vic, an alcoholic private eye chasing cheating spouses, who is still haunted by the case he didn’t fully investigate: the unusual death and Alice’s disappearance.
Despite their quite unorthodox combination, the three manage to make some headway on a case long cold. Lost items appear that belonged to Alice, and as memories begin to return to Jenna, it appears that not all was right in her mother’s world. Did she leave willingly, and what kept her from coming back?
Interspersed in amongst the mystery are snippets of Alice’s observations and memories, cataloguing the stages of grief of mothers, of the herd, and the support structures of elephant families. It ties in with her work on memory from the novella, and each portion brings the reader closer to her return to New England from her work in Africa, to understanding her relationship with Jenna’s father Thomas, and the little community that held the elephant sanctuary together for as long as they could.
Truly, the best part of this novel and its associated novella, were the beautiful characterisations of female elephants in their roles as guides, role models, mothers and leaders. Elephants are truly remarkable creatures; their memories are astoundingly long, seeming to remember what they couldn’t possibly know in terms of long-avoided watering holes and paths. Jodi links the investment of elephants in their calves, 22 months of it and over a decade of rearing, to the deep attachment they have to their babies. And knowing this is all based on real researcher’s observations of wild and captive elephants makes the (true) stories of the elephants all the more harrowing.
The combination of a drunk detective, a moody yet intellectually advanced teen and a psychic isn’t her most original character collection, but their dynamic is a nice one: not too judgemental, or disrespectful. Particularly the thread tying mother and her past to her daughter now is a sweet testament to how lots of love can be an antidote to perhaps not the most responsible parenting.
The narrative sensitively touches on mental illness, and the violence that can sometimes go hand-in-hand with some conditions, but without overly judging either party. There’s several twists and turns as the story progresses, some that I didn’t entirely see until the ending.
People who have enjoyed Jodi Picoult’s previous work will likely enjoy this book. If elephants and their behaviours are of interest, then the depictions of the elephants at the heart of this story will enchant you.
Books like Leaving Time make me grateful that I was raised in a home full of love, that I could connect with the mother-daughter love in this book and share it with my own mother. From my own standpoint as a writer, I hope that one day, I myself can write a book so well researched, crafted and portrayed as Leaving Time.