Together We Read: Charity Norman’s Remember Me

It's been a brilliant year for fiction readers at Christchurch City Libraries, with book launches, WORD Christchurch Festival and informal author talks. This continued with a visit from Charity Norman, whose book Remember Me, (a Ngaio Marsh Award shortlist nominee this year) has been chosen as the title for Together We Read, a collective reading event aimed at sharing a book with a wide audience.

Remember Me

Christchurch certainly put on some Ruahine weather for Friday's talk with Charity - the remains of the rain that has hammered Southland. That didn't stop a crowd of fans who filled up the intimate venue at Foundation Cafe, with yummy canapes and wine, compliments of Libby / Overdrive. 

Charity was introduced by Morrin Rout and took the stage to the tune of Annie Lennox singing Dido's Lament, recorded by the London City Voices lockdown choir. Appropriate, as Charity wrote this book in lockdown, and uses a line from the song to dedicate the book:

Remember me, but ah! forget my fate... (Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas)

Charity Norman was born in Uganda, moved to the Yorkshire Moors as a child and then Birmingham; where she met her Kiwi husband ("Reader, she married him", says Rout), before "cutting and pasting themselves from court in Newcastle, to Ongaonga Playcentre" - emigrating to Waipukurau, on the Hawke's Bay side of the Ruahines.

Norman's funny: she says that as a child in Yorkshire, she thought she was Emily Brontë, and 'pranced about the moors picking harebells'.

She's more than qualified to capture the atmosphere of the Ruahine Ranges, having walked the family dog, Boogie, along the Tukituki River, inhaling the misty air of the hills. She does it well. I'm from Feilding, the other side of those ranges, and this book took me home.

Landscape plays a huge part in Remember Me: the moving story of a young woman missing for more than twenty-five years in those beautiful, unforgiving ranges. Leah Parata was last seen heading up there in pouring rain - perfect conditions for studying her obsession, the taonga Powelliphanta - New Zealand's native giant snail.

Charity writes human stories displaying a deep understanding of human-ness, says Morrin Rout; examining what motivates people and events that can change behaviour. She's also an ex-barrister - so she knows a fair bit about the law. Norman gave up practising law to spend more time with her family and to see if her other talent - writing - would bear fruit. It did! After a brief period of feeling like an imposter who should go back to work, her first book Freeing Grace was picked up by Allen and Unwin then a French publisher. Norman is now eight books in and has been a finalist for the Ngaio Marsh Awards three times. 

How does Charity find the subject matter to inform her books? asks Morrin Rout. "I try to find something different each time", says Norman. Many of her stories have a connection to someone known, which lends them the element of respectful empathy that makes this author so appealing. I particularly enjoyed the depth of each character in The Secrets of Strangers, written about a cafë siege, which includes the point of view of the gunman.

Norman is a bit of a magpie, she says, picking up bits,  pieces and moments (of life), adding her own feelings and emotions.

A strong sense of community brings all Norman's books to life - she represents a diverse range of people, and often throws in an English character. Remember Me is set in Arapito, a small town tucked up into the ranges. Small town life brings small talk, and everyone knows each other - or think they do. 

Everyone is connected - in ways they aren't in Birmingham!

Remember Me is dedicated to Norman's mother in law, who succumbed to dementia, like Remember Me's Felix. Felix is the link in this book to England. He's a doctor who relocated his family to the slower pace of life in rural New Zealand, much to the dissatisfaction of his wife, who left him for a city existence back in the UK. He's hidden his Alzheimer's for years from his family, and when daughter Emily realises the truth he's so advanced that she's forced to stay. 

Norman knows the feeling of the child twelve thousand miles away, like the character of Emily and how the returning sibling is regarded as prodigal; the voice of reason. It's a vivid story from the first paragraph. The description of missing woman Leah Parata's clothing is bright: a turquoise beanie, red bootlaces, a yellow car, which - make it seem improbable that she could have disappeared into the hills, looking for the powellis elephanta (giant snail). The woman herself is a bright spark: a great loss to her family, and the scientific community. 

What is Felix's link to Leah? Will her body ever be recovered? Both families are looking for answers.

Morrin Rout asks how Charity finds her stories' endings: "Do you like them to be not straightforward, or predictable?"

With The Secrets of Strangers, after twelve hours of the siege, the ending could have gone either way. But as Norman got to know Sam (she spent two years in that cafe), she realised that no matter how many times she rewrote it, (three times) the ending had to come out the way it did (no spoilers). Remember Me moves towards an inevitable discovery too, but readers are kept guessing.

Her best book? Norman quotes Stephen Hawking:

That is like asking me which one of my children I love the best.

But if she does, it's The Secret Life of Luke Livingstone, her fourth book. It's about a man transitioning to be a woman. Her publishers and agent didn't think it would resonate, but Charity felt strongly that the story needed to be told. Again the story had a personal connection to someone she knew, who urged her to share the inner life of a trans person, making a contribution to society like everyone else. Wairarapa, where Charity lives, is 'pretty dyed in the wool', yet they elected Georgina Beyer.' Kiwi audiences responded with open-mindedness to this book.

I read stories from Aotearoa because I love to see our landscape and culture reflected in story. This book especially appealed to me as I'm from the Manawatu, and Ruahine (meaning wise woman) is our maunga. Norman sets the action on the other side of the Ruahine Ranges, the Hawkes Bay side. These are remote, wild, and wet mountains. You can easily become hemmed in by cloud cover for days, and become disoriented.

Is there a new book in the wings? Yes. Charity hints that her next incarnation will be based on conspiracy theories. 

Remember me - Together We Read

Together We Read is a digital book club that is available to New Zealand libraries through the Overdrive, or Libby platforms for e-books. Remember Me, an inspired choice, says Morrin Rout, will be available to thousands of readers from Sept 27-October 11. Join the discussion!