The Forgetting Time
, a 2016 supernatural novel by American author Sharon Guskin, follows architect Janie Zimmerman whose young son, Noah, begins to emulate the personality and memories of someone he has never met. Together with a specialist in child reincarnation studies, Dr. Anderson, Janie tries to understand who her son really is. Through the novel’s supernatural plot, Guskin interrogates philosophical topics such as identity and its continuity, attachment, otherness, motherhood, and death.
The novel begins shortly after Janie loses her mother. As she approaches her fortieth birthday, she decides to take a vacation to Trinidad and Tobago, hoping that the getaway will help her process her grief. At her island hotel, she sleeps with another tourist. Though they are very attracted to each other, they part ways, expecting never to see each other again. Shortly afterward, Janie finds out that she is pregnant. She gives birth to a boy, whom she names Noah. She realizes that she is unexpectedly following a path similar to that of her mother, who was also a single parent.
Several years pass, and Noah begins to develop a child's personality. However, his personality is extremely phobic, anxious, and neurotic, leading Janie and others to suspect an underlying disorder. Noah has a deathly fear of water; he frequently has nightmares in which he believes he is drowning. The phobia is so serious that he refuses to take baths, giving Janie no other option but to clean him by unorthodox means. The staff at Noah’s preschool report that he mentions disturbing topics that frighten his classmates. Janie, knowing that Noah has not had exposure to the things he is talking about, takes him to a psychiatrist hoping to discover what is wrong with him. After going through a series of doctors, one of who suggests that Noah has schizophrenia, Janie feels more lost than ever as their options are dwindling. She agrees to meet with Dr. Anderson, a trained psychiatrist who has expertise in the paranormal, particularly child reincarnation phenomena.
When Janie meets Dr. Anderson, he has recently been diagnosed with aphasia and is beginning to lose some of his memory and speech capacities. At the same time, he is struggling to finish a book on child reincarnation. Noah’s case excites Dr. Anderson because he believes that he is a clear case of the phenomenon he is writing about. Dr. Anderson’s first experiment with Noah is to observe him while he sleeps and probe his dream narratives. During one drowning nightmare, Dr. Anderson communicates with Noah. Noah reveals subconscious memories of a past life, including the street he grew up on and his past name, Tommy. Dr. Anderson and Janie investigate Noah’s memories, eventually making their way to Denise Crawford, the mother of Tommy.
When Janie and Noah arrive at Denise’s house, Noah instantly recognizes his mother from his past life. Since Tommy’s disappearance seven years before, Denise has succumbed to drug addiction, unable to process her grief. Tommy’s brother, Charlie, doesn’t know how to help her. At first, Denise is unable to accept that her son could possibly be in Noah’s body. While they discuss Tommy’s disappearance, Noah sneaks away and finds Tommy’s murderer, Paul Clifford. Seven years ago, Paul accidentally shot Tommy; in a panic, he threw his body into a well and never spoke of it. Ever since, Paul has lived in a deep depression, repressing the memory of that day with alcohol and never going near the well in his backyard where Tommy’s decaying body still sits. Noah speaks to Paul and elicits his confession.
After Noah speaks to Charlie, who realizes that he is indeed his brother, Denise begins to believe in reincarnation. She accepts Tommy back into her life, in Noah’s form. This creates some tension with Janie, who cannot fully give up the boy she has always considered her son. While the two mothers negotiate their new roles, Tommy’s corpse is recovered from the well and finally given a funeral. After his old body is laid to rest, Noah finally becomes comfortable bathing. Charlie and Denise’s relationship improves with Tommy back in their lives. Dr. Anderson starts to accept that he has dementia and that his life in his physical body is finite. Finding comfort in his ability to help a child, he no longer rushes to finish his book. At the novel’s close, he leaves for a retreat in Asia. Janie spends some time with Noah back at their home in Brooklyn. Both of them realize that despite Noah’s other identity, they can still be mother and son.