Emily is a children’s illustrator, who spent her childhood in Hawke’s Bay but now lives in London. One evening she receives a call from her father’s neighbour, Raewynn, letting her know that his Alzheimer’s has progressed and he needs a little help. Despite both her brother and sister still living in New Zealand, Raewynn thinks Emily is the one best disposed to make the right decision. Emily’s father is well known in the area and is still known as Dr. Fitzgerald despite his retirement. He still lives on the family’s homestead with his two dogs and next door Raewynn and her son Ira who rents and farms the Arapito land. Until now they’ve managed to look after Dr. Fitzgerald, but trusting Raewynn’s opinion Emily decides to travel to New Zealand and check on her father.
When she arrives she knows all is not well. She realises her father has become very adept at seeming okay. He’s worked out which stock questions to ask when someone’s on the phone, using listening skills to let the caller think they’ve had a deep conversation. She thinks he’s rather like a magician, creating a Dr Fitzgerald who everyone knows and recognises, while underneath feeling confused, bewildered and frightened. As Emily spends time in her childhood home, memories rise to the surface: the unhappiness of her mother; her father’s distraction and avoidance of his family; the terrible state of Manu, Raewynn’s husband, who deteriorated and died from Huntington’s; the disappearance of Raewynn’s daughter Leah, who was lost on their range of mountains and has never been found. Emily was the last one to see Leah alive and the loss of this vibrant and beautiful girl still haunts the whole valley, including Emily’s father.
Norman writes about Alzheimer’s with knowledge and compassion. I spent some time working in nursing homes and Dr Fitzgerald is in the cruellest stage of his disease; he knows it is happening and he’s embarrassed, scared and exhausted from trying to appear like his old self. As Raewynn observes, it will be a blessing when he’s gone past this stage and reaches the place where he doesn’t remember his old self any more. It’s like watching the tide recede and as Emily settles in she can see this happening, layers and layers of what she recognises as her dad slowly drifting away towards the evening and then rolling back in the next morning when he’s at his most lucid. She can see the symptom of ‘sun downing’ as her dad becomes more anxious and confused in the evening. Then there are terrifying nights where he wakes screaming, doesn’t recognise her and can become violent. Then there are the family conflicts over care, as her brother and sister feel he would be better off in the ominous sounding St. Patrick’s where he’d be safe. Of course the other benefit to St.Patrick’s is that the house and land could be sold, meaning they would receive their inheritance. Emily doesn’t want to think her siblings are mercenary, but they have always stuck together and don’t have any interest in the land or the family’s long relationship with Raewynn and Ira who farm their land.
I had a huge soft spot for Raewynn, she feels like a real ‘earth mother’ type of woman and is a pillar of quiet strength. It takes a strong woman to come through the slow deterioration of her husband’s health, until he wasn’t the man she loved any more. She doesn’t complain and they all loved him fiercely, but those who know the family closely, know how much Manu’s illness took out of them all. For them to go through the loss of Leah only two years later seems unspeakably cruel. For Emily there is survivor’s guilt and her sadness for Ira, who was her best friend. Now there may be change coming, on the twenty year anniversary of her disappearance. Raewynn and Emily are interviewed, in the hope of jogging someone’s memory, that a change of allegiance might urge someone to talk, or that someone’s conscience finally forces someone to speak. In the meantime Emily is battling her siblings over her father’s wishes. Firstly, he gives her a living Will drawn up by his solicitor and much to her surprise, the person he wants to speak for him at the end, is Emily. It’s a revelation that her rather remote and unavailable father trusts her to do the right thing. It’s also a revelation that he’s been keeping a file of her memories in the box next to his bed, all the way back to her hospital baby bracelet. However, this isn’t the only revelation in the box and what Emily finds here will blow so many lives wide open.
This is what Charity Norman does best. She shows how relationship dynamics change and even break when something unexpected happens. Her characters are real, because they are so well constructed psychologically. Her sense of place is also incredible from the forbidding mountain range that backdrops the farm, to the bitter cold and the incredible micro-climate of a lush gully and waterfall hidden away. Oh how unbelievably emotional I felt at the end of this book, not just a lump in my throat, but actual tears. Yet I also felt such a feeling of ‘rightness’ that it ended the way it should. I was also deeply touched by the unique combination of Haka and bagpipes at Leah’s memorial. The New Zealanders I know seem to celebrate people for their unique traits and this memorial took me back to my brother in law’s funeral in Gisborne where a chainsaw and work boots adorned the coffin and the guttural roar of a stag heralded his departure. This writer is one of my favourites, because she understands the uniqueness of human beings, their incredible strengths and their hidden weaknesses. There is such emotional intelligence in this latest novel and it was my absolute pleasure to read it.
Meet The Author
Charity Norman was born in Uganda and brought up in successive draughty vicarages in Yorkshire and Birmingham. After several years’ travel she became a barrister, specialising in crime and family law. In 2002, realising that her three children had barely met her, she took a break from the law and moved with her family to New Zealand. REMEMBER ME is her seventh novel.