Charity Norman – Remember Me

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2022
Cover design by Christabella Design
Cover photo Jonathan Astin

A cold case mystery begins this story, the disappearance of Leah Parata in 1994 in the farming and wilderness area of Tawanui in New Zealand. In 2019, when the contemporary story strand is told, the disappearance remains an unsolved case and a cloud of fear and uncertainty still hangs over the community.

Charity Norman talks about Remember Me

It is in this context that Emily Kirkland is called home to Tawanui from London, where she works as a successful children’s book illustrator. The family farm neighbour Raewyn, mother of Leah and long-time family friend has grave concerns for Felix, Emily’s dad, who is showing very clear signs of dementia.

Raewyn’s husband, Manu, has died some years previously with Huntingdon’s Disease. And so it is that two cruel and incurable degenerative diseases are at the heart of this story.

For Emily and her siblings there are decisions to be made about the care of their father, his wife having long since left the marriage and returned to England. Emily’s childhood was characterised by the emotional absence of her father, a busy GP who was always buried in his work and seemingly disinterested in his family.

However, as the story unfolds, the relationship between Emily and Felix becomes closer and long held secrets emerge, including some surprising boxes of family memories kept by Felix.

It is not possible to speak about plot in this book without spoiling things for the reader and so suffice it to say that the personal present and the historical past are deeply inter-woven. The author skilfully reels out her mystery, cleverly engaging us in the dramas of siblings and neighbours, remembered wrongs and the complexities of family life.

The characters are rich and real, our loyalties quickly placed and then doubted. A strong sense of place contributes to our unease – the wild places in the mountains are both a lure and a fear for the unwary. Questions continue to circulate in the community about the fate of the beautiful and clever Leah and Emily struggles with her need to know and her fear of finding a truth she doesn’t want to face.

This is a beautifully constructed tale, leading the reader down first person narrator Emily’s thought paths, convincing us to accept her judgements, tantalising us with her theories. The mystery has far greater implications than that of an historic case. It’s intensely personal, deliciously complex.

The metaphors of degeneration and intergenerational hurt are strongly built. The notion of escape from fear and disintegration is mirrored in Emily’s fantastical creations as a children’s book illustrator, her path into a world free of care and full of fun.

Above all we are left with a sense of hope as we are privy not only to the solution to the mystery but to the unveiling of a life of secrets and misunderstandings, of the revelation of a parent to his child.

The bravery and terror of choice is a Leitmotif well enunciated in all story strands and one which allows us to close this book with optimism, despite the harsh realities of the story it tells.

I confess, to my shame, not to have known Charity Norman’s work before this one, a failing I will quickly address. Remember Me is a superb piece of mystery fiction, imbued with compassion and insight into the human condition, an absorbing and well-crafted novel from an assured writer.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Charity for such an enjoyable conversation about this work.