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