Remember Me by Charity Norman Review

A page-turning blend of suspense, tension, and tenderness that earned the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel in 2023.

I try to read all the novels on the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel shortlist every year but didn’t manage it in 2023. With the longlist for the 2024 award due out next month, in anticipation, I chose to read the 2023 winner, Remember Me by Charity Norman. The novel certainly qualifies as a crime novel. There is a crime of sorts on offer. But the book wasn’t quite what I had expected. Yet in many ways, it was so much more.

Charity Norman’s novel tells the story of a complicated father-daughter relationship and how our connection with our parents affects our lives well past childhood. The suspense and tension come from the unsolved disappearance of a young woman twenty-five years earlier that overshadows the story. There’s no edge of your seat suspense here, but Norman effectively keeps the tension and suspense lurking in the background throughout.

Worrying about her father, Felix Kirkland, was the last thing Emily needed. They were never close, and her parents divorced long ago. Emily lives in a London flat where she makes her living illustrating children’s books and is far from wealthy. Felix Kirkland, her father, a retired rural doctor, still lives in Tawanui, the tiny Hawke’s Bay farming community where Emily and her siblings grew up. Emily’s friends and clients are all in London. Her mother lives in Yorkshire. Nathan, her son, traveling in Asia, is due home within the year. Her life is in London. But then Felix’s neighbor, Raewyn Parata, a longtime family friend, rings Emily and reveals her father has Alzheimer’s and is failing fast. Emily’s sister Carmen and brother Eddie still live in New Zealand but are too busy with their own lives to help with their father. Mostly, out of guilt, Emily makes the trip back to New Zealand from London to see her father, knowing it’s unfair to rely on Raewyn to bear the brunt of her father’s escalating mental deterioration.

Planning on a stay of only two weeks, once Emily arrives and sees her father’s condition firsthand, she ends up staying far longer and becomes his caretaker. During this time she uncovers evidence that her father may have been involved in the 25-year-old mystery surrounding the disappearance of Raewyn’s daughter Leah, a young environmentalist, who went on a hike in the mountainous wilderness outside the town and never returned.

Remember Me is definitely a slow burner, but Charity Norman’s writing holds the reader’s interest throughout. She has an atmospheric style quite similar to that of Australian author Jane Harper and effectively puts you into the setting.

Norman captures the sheer essence of life for those with Alzheimer’s, and those caring for them. Norman illustrates it all by having Felix explain to his daughter how it feels to have memories slip away, to recall something one minute but not the next, and the feeling of not being fully present in your own mind and body. Having known people who had dementia and Alzheimer’s, the accuracy of it is heartrending.

Felix’s condition not only takes a toll on Emily physically. She also struggles with her role as caretaker since she’s never felt close to her father, who was always distant while she was growing up. She had always believed him to be more interested in his patients than his own family. But her father’s demeanor she remembers, changed by the disease, offers her insight into things she never understood, even explanations for his past emotional distance. But she doesn’t find it all that comforting when she realizes she needs her father to be more the man she remembers than he becomes as his condition worsens.

Emily’s most troubling worries come when she uncovers things that suggest Felix may have concealed awful secrets about Leah’s disappearance. These discovers come from some documents and photos she finds in her father’s room, some strange things he says when he is suffering the worse effects of the Alzheimer’s, and an article she finds hidden in a cupboard that Leah was wearing the day she disappeared in the mountains. This frightens her because the evidence points to her father, now a fragile, elderly man, may have been involved in the woman’s disappearance.

This is the most poignant, lovely book I’ve read in a very long while. Once I realized it wasn’t the typical crime read that I’d expected it to be, the powerful impact of the book surprised me. The ending, while bittersweet, couldn’t be more perfect and guarantees most readers will shed a few tears as an emotional response is unavoidable.

While Remember Me won a prestigious award as a top crime novel last year, it fits just as well in the general literary fiction and women’s fiction genre categories. But that doesn’t mean a guy can’t thoroughly enjoy reading it. I know I did, and I intend to read more of Charity Norman’s work in the future.

Allen & Unwin published Remember Me in 2022. I purchased the copy used for this review, which represents my honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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