Hildy, who’s been experiencing odd gaps in her awareness, is hit with the news that she has cancer of the Tempora, a (made-up) part of the brain where the body experiences time. Her chemotherapy has an odd side effect: Hildy can now see auras around people in the form of colorful mists and vapors. What’s more, she finds that she can pull away bits of aura from other people and inhale it. It gives her the feelings and memories from the person she took the bit of aura from. An old person has a thin aura that gives her a sense of duty and money worries; a younger person’s aura makes her feel exhilarated.
When she begins hanging around a playground to surreptitiously capture part of babies’ auras in jars, she’s confronted one day by a man who accuses her of stealing time. He informs her that there’s a market for stolen time; dying people who are down to their final days are anxious for whatever additional time they can get. But Hildy is taking that time ― and the associated memories ― away from others without their permission. If she’s only taking a bit, does it really harm them? And so Hildy gets sucked into a black market for stolen time, trying to deal not only with her own qualms but also with the limited and sometimes misleading information she gets from the buyers and sellers of other people’s time, and their demands for her to use her abilities to benefit them.
In Search of Lost Time (2017) takes an attention-grabbing concept and explores the ramifications of it, but does so in a somewhat rambling and disjointed way. There’s a heartfelt but disturbing scene with a group of cancer patients who have become aware of Hildy’s abilities, and beg her for any time they can get. But then Karen Heuler shifts back to the more ominous dealings with the sellers of stolen time, and we scarcely see the cancer patients again.
Heuler does develop an interesting association of various aura colors with certain emotions and memories. She tells the cancer group (who she thinks of as the baldies):
I’ve got some that I’m thinking might be about love; I’m not sure. A very pale blue. The darker blues are not as nice. There are some educational ones; always bright orange. Religion, usually in the deep purples. I don’t have all the nuances; the colors mix up a little, but this is cherry red, it seems cheerful to me.
In Search of Lost Time has its intriguing moments, but they’re overpowered by the uneven pacing and plot, and the novella is populated mostly by rather shallow and unpleasant characters with questionable moral views. The time sellers are a grasping, avaricious group, and Hildy herself has been engaged in a long-term affair with a married man, which leads her to a key decision point late in the story.
In the end the characters and story justify stealing time from those who are “given too much” so that it can be given to those who need it the most, as a deed of mercy that is more important than the justice of the act. Personally I just couldn’t buy into the worldview that it’s ever justified to play God, or Robin Hood, with people’s precious memories and lives without their consent.