Emily Kirkland never felt close to her father, Dr Felix Kirkland. So, when his neighbour calls her from Aotearoa to say her father is struggling on his own and can she return to help, she thinks it would be “easier to talk to him when he’s dead.” However, as she has no pressing commitments in London, she decides to give her father three weeks. As her time with him stretches out, she learns things about him, and the disappearance of the neighbour’s daughter Leah, that leads to her “becoming very, very afraid of the truth”.
Dr Leah Parata disappeared shortly before Emily headed overseas to explore the world. Leah was a brilliant scientist and lecturer. Her research focus was the beneficial effects of 1080 use in the Ruahine Ranges. One day she headed into the bush near the town of Tawanui for research, and she never came out. Her brother Ira, Emily’s childhood best friend, and his mother, Raewyn, never got over the loss of Leah, their shock made worse by Manu, Leah and Ira’s father, having died after a long debilitating illness only two years before the disappearance.
Emily is used to being the one left out or left behind. Her family moved to Aotearoa from Leeds when she was six. When Emily turned eighteen, her mother, Lillian, returned to Yorkshire. The father of her son Nathan “ran like a hare” when hearing of the pregnancy. Her older twin siblings, Eddie and Carmen, were always remote, ganging up on her. They now live successful lives in Auckland and seem to only have inheritance-related concerns about their father. Emily is now forty-seven, back on the family homestead, and her father is disappearing in front of her eyes. Emily is initially shocked to enter his life – finding notes and messages throughout the house reminding him how to use equipment, reminding him of his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.
Felix’s moods are erratic, ranging from pleasant to distressing to violent. The disarray is even more shocking as “Felix Kirkland, was the most precise, orderly individual that ever walked this earth”. Emily catches glimpses of her father that are a revelation – episodes of her childhood, within which she has always felt lacking, are re-shaped when she hears his recollections. Amidst the confusion of Felix’s life, with his losing his memories and losing his words, are flashes of his old professional self – he diagnoses and treats Emily’s sore neck with kind attention. They spend quality time together, tending the roses, playing chess, and then Felix gives Emily a letter with instructions to open it once he has died, and he starts saying things that Emily wishes she had not heard.
Remember me is a mystery – what happened to Dr Leah Parata? Could she have been murdered – are anti-1080 sentiments strong enough that someone might kill a 1080 defender? Why did many people report seeing Leah with bruises? What is under the built-in wardrobe, with the dog “whining and scrabbling on the floor in there”? And there are more general mysteries – “Where do people go?” Where was the Felix Emily remembers gradually going, while his physically fit body was still there in front of her? Where did Manu go all those months his family were caring for his wasting body? Leah walked along a road that suddenly transitions into the thick bush where she disappeared, at what point do the people you know disappear? Those people whose memories you hold for years, and who turn out to be not like that at all. Emily’s world is like the permafrost she tells her father about – thawing to reveal prehistoric creatures.
“I’d scarcely known my father when he was at the top of his game, let along now that he was turning into someone else.” If Felix is changing, does he still get to make life decisions? There is consideration of agency. If there is a test to detect the possibility of your having a degenerative genetic disease, do you take it? If you have access to information that can seriously affect others, do you share it? Emily is swamped with sudden responsibility, and she thinks of her cohort: “Most of us are just masquerading as adults, aren’t we? All those forty- and fifty- and sixty- somethings, just a pack of school kids in disguise.”
Remember me is meticulously plotted and sympathetically written, you accompany Emily as she re-traverses her memories and tries to reconstruct what has happened in the past. The reader is given clues, and lots of information, some cleverly provided via a documentary crew revisiting Leah’s disappearance. The novel is cram packed with vivid characters you get to care about. There are some sad moments and some warm moments. There are even funny moments when Emily works on her latest project illustrating a children’s book. There is plenty of tension as the mystery unfolds, and it has the most exquisite ending, which I read through tears. Remember me is a stunning book!