Destined for Discussion: Sharon Guskin’s The Forgetting Time and Virginia Reeves’ Work Like Any Other
Two daring first novels offer rich fictional worlds and meaty themes sure to get book-clubbers talking.
One of the many pleasures of reading fiction is discovering a compelling and imaginative new writer. And one of the joys of falling under the spell of an exciting first novel is sharing your enthusiasm. Choosing books by first-time authors for book discussions is one surefire way to spark fresh responses and lively conversation. With this opportunity for group reading adventures in mind, we’ve highlighted two powerful forthcoming novels that grapple with intense and mysterious subjects; two books ripe for group discussion.
Guskin came to fiction as a documentary filmmaker who volunteered at a refugee camp in Thailand, an experience that inspired the deeply provocative theme of her ensnaring and unsettling novel, The Forgetting Time. We bond right away with Janie, a lonely, 39-year-old architect, and psychiatrist Anderson, who is grieving over the death of his wife and adjusting to an appalling diagnosis of primary progressive aphasia. This form of dementia will slowly and inexorably destroy his command of language, a cruel fate amplified by Anderson’s ardent devotion to his controversial research into “the survival of consciousness after death,” specifically reincarnation. As Anderson struggles to continue his investigations of children who remember past lives, we rejoin Janie, who is now a single mother wrung down to raw nerves by the inexplicably disruptive behavior of her strangely precocious, anxious son, Noah, who is forever asking for his “other mother.”
In vivid flashbacks, we accompany Anderson as he meets families with children who remember past lives in Thailand and India, where reincarnation is part of the culture, unlike America, where his findings are summarily dismissed by his colleagues. As Anderson, Janie, and Noah follow the clues in Noah’s enigmatic “memories,” unlikely under-siege relationships develop as the searchers cross racial boundaries.
Readers will be galvanized by Guskin’s sharply realized and sympathetic characters with all their complications, contradictions, failures, sorrows, and hope. Deftly braiding together suspense, family drama, and keen insights into the workings of the brain, Guskin poses key and unsettling questions about love and memory, life and death, belief and fact. A novel that bridges the fuzzy categories of “literary” and “commercial,” The Forgetting Time offers a vast spectrum of significant and nuanced topics that will catalyze probing discussions.
Hope is found in reading, compassion, forgiveness,
and good, honest work, whatever form it takes.
Work like Any Other is set in Alabama just as electricity is beginning to transform the countryside. Roscoe finds his passion and life’s work in handling this invisible and dangerous force, and feels lost and angry when he has to give up his good electric company job and move to the failing farm his wife, Marie, a teacher, has inherited, a shabby place not yet hooked up to the electric lines running along the adjacent road. Certain that the only way they’ll get ahead is with electricity, he taps illegally into the grid, recruiting Wilson, an African American who works and lives on the farm with his family, to help him. For a time, their lives are much improved. But such hubris tempts fate. We follow Roscoe to prison as Wilson disappears into a far more wretched form of incarceration and forced labor.
First-time novelist Virginia Reeves fully inhabits Roscoe’s mind and body as he navigates the miseries of convict life, where he is rewarded and resented for being literate (even officials can’t read). His work with the dogs trained to hunt down escaped prisoners is harrowing; his happiest hours are spent working in the prison library. Reeves’ sensitive portrayal of the librarian and illumination of how this sanctuary is run stand in humanizing contrast to the surrounding brutality.
As Reeves dramatizes Roscoe’s long, grim isolation, she circles back to tell Marie’s and Wilson’s stories, casting light on a little-known facet of the Jim Crow South. This is a consummately well-written, deeply affecting, thought-provoking American historical novel of hard labor, broken dreams, moral dilemmas, violence, racism, and the intricacies of marriage, parenthood, and friendship. Hope is found in reading, compassion, forgiveness, and good, honest work, whatever form it takes. Reeves’ gripping, dynamically plotted, and profound novel will resonant on different frequencies for men and women and spark soul-searching and heated discussion.
This review first appeared in the December 15, 2015, issue of Booklist.