In The Spotlight: Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Crime novels that feature archaeologists allow the author tell the story of a dig, and the mystery that may be going on there. At the same time, they allow the author to tell a story from the past. As the archaeology team uncovers different finds, the reader can learn about the people who lived in that place, while at the same time following the present-day events. That’s the sort of dual story that Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel.

In the present time, contract archaeologist Chloe Davis, her business partner, Bill, and a group of their archaeology students travel to Kaipara Harbour, on New Zealand’s North Island. They’re there to excavate the remains of a religious community that burnt down in the 1880s. For Chloe, it’s a homecoming, since she grew up in the area, and her family has farmed the land for many years. But it’s not destined to be a pleasant reunion with family and friends.

For one thing, the local community is not pleased about the excavation. That includes Chloe’s cousin Shane, who belongs to the River Haven Consortium. That’s a development group that wants to subdivide the land into lifestyle blocks. There’s a stipulation, though, that the mission must be properly excavated before the plans can go ahead. Chloe, Bill, and the team have just a short (and grudgingly granted) time to do their jobs before the land gets developed. And there are people who don’t want them to even get started. In fact, more than once, there’s sabotage to the dig site, and a few scuffles.

For another thing, the weather doesn’t help. A spate of rain slows everything down, making it harder for the dig team to get done the work within the time they agreed. This shortens tempers on both sides. Still, the team perseveres.

As the excavation continues, Chloe and the team discover more buried at the site than a burned-out shell of a building. And as they slowly unravel the truth about what really happened to the members of the religious community, they also find that there are some unexpected connections to the present day. And someone doesn’t want them to find out what those connections are.

Because the book tells two stories in two timelines, readers follow along both in the present day and in the late 1880s. Readers who prefer to follow only one timeline will notice this. The present-day timeline is told in narrative form, in the present tense, for the most part. The 1880s timeline is told through a series of journal entries. Very slowly, readers learn what the link is between the two timelines, so that the two stories do link up.

And the pacing is an important element in this novel. There are moments of action, and real danger. But this isn’t a fast-paced thriller. Readers who prefer a more leisurely pace to a novel will appreciate that the story unfolds little by little. And, as a side note, the violence in the novel is not brutal or extended.

The story plays out in small-town New Zealand, both in the past and in the present, and Fowler places the reader there. This is the sort of community where everyone knows everyone, and where family roots are deep. And, as the stories play out, we see how the network of relationships impacts the characters. That network can’t help drawing Chloe into the mystery, even if her archaeological interest didn’t.

The present-day story is told from Chloe’s point of view (first person), so we get to know her character. She is a skilled archaeologist, happily married to a police officer, and the mother of two girls. It’s hard for her to be away from her family, but she keeps in touch with them by telephone, and does visit home during one weekend. There is some wit in the novel, including one sub-plot in which one of her daughters goes through some of the extremes (in this case, Goth to evangelical Christian) that teens often experience. Chloe’s husband, Jim, is a good and loving father, but he has his own job to do, so her absence is hard on him, too. Still, it’s not spoiling the story to say that he’s there when she needs him.

This isn’t to say, though, that Chloe is the stereotypical ‘damsel in distress.’ Readers who prefer strong female characters will appreciate the fact that Chloe is smart and resourceful. She gets into difficult situations, but she finds a way through them. She makes mistakes and is vulnerable, as we all are, but she’s also not afraid to get her jeans thoroughly muddied and do what it takes to keep her students safe.

The story from the late 1880s is told (in first person) by a young girl named Charity, whose mother brings her to a religious community run by a man named Brother Jack. As the journal entries go on, we learn what brought them there, what has kept them there, and what it’s like to live in such a place. Life is hard, especially in a spartan religious enclave, and what little there is, is divided up among all of the members. Everyone does a share of work (crafts for sale, farm products, keeping house, doing maintenance, etc.), and there are communal places for eating and sleeping. It’s an interesting look at what a religious community might have been like at that time.

But this is not an ordinary group of people who’ve decided to give worldly goods. There are secrets at the community, and they have their impact many, many years later. As the journal goes on, and we learn what those secrets are, the dig team gets closer to the truth in the present day. And we learn what links the two timelines.

What Remains Behind tells two stories about the same small New Zealand community. It features two protagonists who are linked in ways they don’t know, and shows how, as Chloe puts it,

‘Everything leaves a trace. Nothing disappears.’

But what’s your view? Have you read What Remains Behind? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 30 January/Tuesday, 31 January – Murder in Bollywood – Shadaab Amjad Khan

Monday, 6 February/Tuesday 7 February – In the Woods – Tana French

Monday, 13 February/Tuesday, 14 February – The Hidden Man – Robin Blake


Filed under Dorothy Fowler, What Remains Behind

25 responses to “In The Spotlight: Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind

  1. There are days Margot when I know early on that it was a mistake visiting you – this sounds like my perfect read, with not only a past and present storyline but one that includes journal entries – how am I supposed to resist?

    • Bwahahahaha… 😉 – In all seriousness, Cleo, I do think you would like this one. It certainly weaves past and present timelines together, and we get a really interesting look at a small town area in New Zealand. I think the journal entries add to the story, too. If you do read this (I know all about tottering TBRs!) I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  2. It’s only yesterday that I was telling my children how much I enjoyed being part of the Arch and Anth department (Archaeology and Anthropology), although I only studied the latter. It meant lots of fascinating discussions in the coffee room with people who’d just come back from a dig, as well as those who’d come from a remote mountain village in Bhutan.

    • Oh, that does sound really interesting, Marina Sofia! I’d have liked to hear some of those conversations, too. There’s so much you can learn when you know how to look into the past, and when you know how to look at the way people develop and interact with each other. Fascinating!

  3. This sounds like a great read and would fit into my Around the World challenge nicely. Like Cleo, I can’t find it in the obvious places, but I shall do a bit of hunting!

  4. Like those above, I love the sound of this book, ticks all the boxes for me. I hope we can find copies…

  5. I love mysteries that have to do with archaeological digs. I taught ancient civilizations to grades four and five and found when I retired that I’d been bitten by the bug. I’ve been to two digs so far as a volunteer and hope to go on another next year. One took me to an Anasazi site in Colorado and the other to Easter Island (Rapa Nui). Love the settings.

    • Oh, that’s so exciting, Mysm2000! Those digs must have been fascinating. I’ll bet your students enjoyed your lessons on ancient cultures, too. I know I’ve always found them interesting. And I love it that you decided to follow your passion when you retired. That is, I think, one thing that retirement should be for – doing things you don’t have time to do during the working/child raising years.

  6. I’m with Cleo: a visit to your blog of a morning spells disaster for the ever growing TBR pile. This one sounds terrific, Margot. I’m curious to know when it was published and/or when the contemporary story-line takes place.

  7. I haven’t read it, but it sounds excellent. I have a forensic archaeologist story on my Kindle that I’ve been dying to read, entitled The Cameraman.

  8. Pingback: In The Spotlight: Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind | picardykatt's Blog

  9. neeru

    Sometimes these multiple timelines work, sometimes they don’t.I am glad in this book they seem to have worked. Looking forward to Murder in Bollywood which is written by the son of a noted film actor.

    • You’re right, Neeru; some times those dual timelines are successful, and sometimes not. I think in this case, it did work well. And I had read that about Khan being the son of an actor. He’s also been in the film world in his own right.

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  11. This review surprised me because I couldn’t see what the mystery was–simply because there were no detectives or a single, obvious murder! What a goofball I am, for this is really a mystery novel! Your descriptions of the book also reminded me of a VERY weird novel I read called Imperium by Christian Kracht. In 1902 August Engelhardt decided he had enough of the restrictive life in Germany and set sail for the south seas to live as a nudist vegetarian in one of Germany’s colonies on the island of Kabakon. Engelhardt worshipped coconuts, saying that because they grew high up in trees, close to the sun, that they were sacred and could cure any ailment. Engelhardt tried to start a cult called “The Order of the Sun” to gather like-minded people on his island. As you might have guessed, many people died. What you may not have guess is that August Engelhardt was a real guy. If you’re interested, here’s my review:

    • Thanks, GtL. That does sound like a strange novel. Intriguing, in an odd way… Thanks very much for sharing your review. As to What Remains Behind, you’re right. There’s not a detective – well, not a police detective – as a main character. And yet, there are murders. And there are mysteries. It’s one of those interesting blends/hybrids of crime fiction and literary fiction.

  12. Pingback: This Week in Books (May 31) – Cleopatra Loves Books

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