In Africa, you feel primordial

leaving timeLeaving Time
by Jodi Picoult

I was eager to read this after sampling the prequel novella Larger Than Life. That told the story of Alice, an animal psychologist studying elephants in Africa. This novel picks up the story with Alice’s daughter Jenna.

Jenna is 13 and wants to find her mother, who went missing when she was 3. Her father is in an asylum and she now lives with her grandmother, who won’t talk about Alice. Jenna has secretly been investigating for a while, but now her summer vacation has arrived and she’s saved some money. She approaches two people for help: Serenity, a psychic, and Virgil, a private detective. Between them, they try to figure out what happened that night 10 years ago.

It’s a story with twists and turns that are mostly unexpected. And it’s strange enough to begin with, starting as it does on an elephant sanctuary in New England under threat of bankruptcy, staffed by five people with some very complex relationships. The characters and relationships were all rich and interesting in the best way. Several nights in a row found me up far past my bedtime reading this compulsively.

“My rudeness had caught up to me, and now my cheeks burned. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘You’re not who I thought you were.’

Thomas stared at me for a long moment, long enough to change the direction of the wind for the rest of my life.”

But two (sort-of related) things prevent me from being able to say this is a great book. The switch from smart, educated, scientific Alice to girly, not smart, “ghosts talk to me” Serenity was grating. That’s just not a point of view I can relate to and I was deeply disappointed at the increasing focus on “psychic phenomena”. The second problem I have is with the ending. I won’t explain why, but I’m sure you’ll be familiar with the experience of enjoying a book only to have it ruined for you by an ending you can’t get on board with.

“You have to understand – there is a romance to Africa. You can see a sunset and believe you have witnessed the hand of God. You watch the slow lope of a lioness and forget to breathe. You marvel at the tripod of a giraffe bent to water. In Africa, there are iridescent blues on the wings of birds that you do not see anywhere else in nature. In Africa, in the midday heat, you can see blisters in the atmosphere. When you are in Africa, you feel primordial, rocked in the cradle of the world. Given that sort of setting, is it any wonder that recollections might be rose-coloured.”

I know that both those criticisms are effectively me wishing Picoult had written a different book, which is not entirely fair, but on the other hand I read this book on the basis not only of a blurb but a whole prequel given away free as marketing – and both misrepresent this book.

If you’re less sensitive than me to ghosts and seances in otherwise realistic novels, then there’s a lot to enjoy here. The narrator switches between Alice, Jenna, Serenity and Virgil and all their stories are interesting, warm and compelling. There are also plenty of facts and anecdotes about elephants that I loved. I have definitely come away with a newfound interest in the giant creatures.

Published 2014 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Source: Won in a Twitter competition from the publisher.