I always look forward to a book by Jodi Picoult because she writes about complex relationships that are often based around a contentious issue. I pick them for my personal book club because of her exploration of differing points of view and the complex legal dilemmas that create long, interesting discussions. Our main character is Jenna who is 13 years old and lives with her grandmother. Her mother, Alice, disappeared long ago when she was a toddler and at the same time her father ended up admitted to a psychiatric unit in a catatonic state. Jenna remembers the elephant sanctuary where they all lived in New England and that her mother Alice had moved from Botswana where she was studying grief in elephant communities. Yet, she knows nothing about what happened to her father that night or where her mother might be. Using every resource available to her Jenna takes babysitting jobs to fund a search and despite using every spare moment has never found a lead. The novel follows her search as she recruits two people to help her.
Serenity is a medium with pink hair and outrageous clothes to match which makes her a colourful character for the media to pick up on and it is just after a high profile piece of work that we meet her at the beginning of the novel. Sadly the case of a missing senator’s son ended badly and Serenity appears to have lost her spirit guides for good. Jenna also recruits one of the detectives from the original case; Virgil Stanhope has left the force since the investigation ten years ago, but he still has some friends on the force who can give them help. Serenity is too moved by Jenna’s story to admit that she might have lost her gift after her last case went wrong. Yet when they visit the crime scene, Serenity does find a clue that sets them off on their journey. What follows is a story of loss and lost chances as the three slowly piece together the lives of everyone who worked and lived for the elephants at the sanctuary including workers Nevvie, and her daughter and son-in-law, Grace and Gideon. Picoult makes it clear how this tragedy had ripples that ran through everyone involved. Virgil worries he is too washed up to help and Serenity doesn’t know whether the evidence she found was guided by spirits or if she’s simply working on luck. However, some incidents on their search do have a distinctly spiritual element such as a visit to Nevvie’s last listed address where they encounter a very angry spirit that manifests in water.
It becomes clear that the elephant sanctuary held many secrets and by interspersing the search with chapters from Alice’s research on grieving elephants Picoult gently reminds us that Serenity and Virgil are dealing with a girl who has experienced a lifetime of loss. She cleverly balances the suspense of the case with the exploration of each character’s inner world. I always love how she explores very complex feelings and lets her reader see the story from each character’s point of view. Usually I can connect with these stories deeply, but with this novel I struggled to fully engage with my main characters because I had so many questions. I couldn’t understand why there would be so much evidence left at the scene of the disappearance, or why a private investigator would take on a 13 year old girl without any contact with her guardian? In a flashback to when Jenna’s father Thomas meets Alice for the first time, she never mentions the coincidence of her mother living in the same town where his elephant sanctuary is. Yet later we are told that this is where Jenna’s grandmother has always lived. It may just be my nature but I couldn’t take my mind off the questions and it had a jarring effect, because I kept recapping to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Some of these questions are answered with the huge twist at the end which was unexpected but not necessarily original. Other questions are left as loose ends and while I realise that in life not everything ties up neatly, here there was too much confusion. I found out afterwards that there are two novellas available, containing the back stories of both Serenity and Alice. These are Kindle singles that create interest in the coming novel, but I wondered if they would have worked better as part of it rather than being separated.
I loved the sections on elephant behaviour and found the descriptions of their grieving rituals incredibly moving. I also felt so much empathy for Jenna who felt abandoned by her mother and father, and I didn’t feel that her relationship with her grandmother was a warm and loving one. Her need for her mother left her very open to dangers; she trusted strangers and luckily for Jenna, Serenity and Virgil were good people. The book is very dependent on the twist ending and for me, although it threw a new light on the whole story, it wasn’t entirely successful. I found myself in the frustrating position of wanting to read backwards to catch all the threads, but then I didn’t find that satisfying either. With a heavy heart I have to say it is not Picoult’s best novel, but even so there is a lot to like here such as Alice’s story, getting to know the individual elephants and the way she depicts a trauma which resonates down the generations. I would recommend reading some of Picoult’s best work if you enjoyed this, such as Plain Truth which is set within an Amish community, and The Storyteller which covers the continuing effects of The Holocaust through a survivor of the concentration camps and a former SS officer.
Title: Leaving Time
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (25 Dec. 2014)
Reviewed by Hayley Baxter © 2015