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Winner of the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Award for best novel. (Image: Archi Banal)
Winner of the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Award for best novel. (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksDecember 20, 2023

Missing person, missing memories: a review of Remember Me by Charity Norman

Winner of the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Award for best novel. (Image: Archi Banal)
Winner of the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Award for best novel. (Image: Archi Banal)

Sam Brooks reviews Charity Norman’s Ngaio Marsh Award-winning novel.

The premise of Remember Me is an ingenious one. Emily, as proverbially a prodigal daughter as you could find, returns to her hometown of Tawanui, which is so remote the InterCity doesn’t even stop there, to take care of her ailing father, Dr Felix Kirkland. Although Felix is physically as fit as an ox, he is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and even though both of Emily’s twin siblings live much closer, she is the one who has to take care of everything.

To complicate matters, the 25th anniversary of their neighbour Leah’s disappearance is looming. Leah, an accomplished doctor and avid environmentalist, went on a solo hike one night and despite weeks of searching, was never found. That disappearance hangs over not just the town, but the entire story. It’s only when Felix starts to wander deep into the fog of dementia, and Leah’s name starts escaping his mouth, that Emily begins to dive back into the mystery of what actually happened to her neighbour – and why.

2023 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel winner Charity Norman (right) with New Zealand’s ‘queen of crime’, Vanda Symon.

The best, and most touching, parts of Remember Me are when Emily has to deal with her father’s Alzheimer’s. Norman captures perfectly the constant pivots that not only Felix is going through as his mind, and his memories, slip in and out of his grasp, but how the child has to readjust and reassess based on which version of their parent they’re getting this morning. Norman’s personal experience of Alzheimer’s informs the accuracy and poignancy of Emily’s situation: a reality that heightens the tension and the emotion of the novel. Is Emily waking up to make breakfast for her brilliant, but distant, doctor father? Or is she making breakfast for a man who seems on the cusp of confessing something he maybe shouldn’t, and even worse, might not even be true? In a story where we guess quite early on that there is something linking Felix and Leah, it’s a credit that Norman keeps the reader guessing for as long as she does.

There is no doubt that Remember Me is a great yarn. But I wonder if it sacrifices depth for the sake of being a great page turner. While Norman’s depiction of Alzheimer’s is touching, and sometimes even haunting (especially when Emily starts to begin to have dreams that seem directly connected to her father’s mental state) she stops short of interrogating how we should treat a person who may have committed many sins, be they criminal or merely negligent, when they are, in terms of where their mind is at, no longer that person. Perhaps the mystery genre isn’t the place for this. The questions that the reader wants answered are less about psychology and philosophy, and more about story and character. Like a shark, if the plot stops moving, the novel drowns.

The character of Leah provides another conundrum for Norman. It’s not a spoiler to say that Leah, introduced in the first paragraph of the book as “infinitely, effortlessly superior” and declared “vanished” two pages later, is not as she seems. Hell, it’s adhering to the conventions of the genre that the human void at the centre of this mystery is more than she appears.

Leah becomes such a presence in the story, however, that she unbalances it. While her mystery may be the centre of the story, and understandably the characters are drawn back into the past due to her untimely disappearance, she ends up being the most vividly drawn of anybody – even though we only ever see her through the eyes of other people. This results in making everybody else feel tertiary. By the time the reveals start coming, we care more about finding out about Leah and what really happened to her than what that means to the characters left behind.

In other parts of the novel, Norman appears to be fighting against the genre she’s operating in. There’s a passage later on in the book – if you’re looking for spoilers, you won’t find them here – that stretches a bit of credulity. Realism is never really the goal of a mystery novel, but a mystery’s main reveal should exist within the reality that the author sets up for us. Norman’s reveal is as good as any I’ve read in a mystery novel, seeded thoughtfully and nourished very carefully throughout, but the method of the reveal showed too much of the author’s hand for my liking. The form used amps up the story at the necessary moment, but draws attention to itself in the exact same gesture.

It’s a credit to Norman that this doesn’t derail Remember Me, but it does draw attention to the tension between her chosen genre and her chosen story. As interrogation, or even as commentary, the novel ends up falling a bit short. However, as a yarn? You could hardly find better. It’s the kind of story you tell breathlessly over a beer, to an enraptured audience. And sometimes? That’s just the ticket. 

Remember Me by Charity Norman, (Allen & Unwin NZ) can be purchased from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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