Friday, September 4, 2009


What Remains Behind by Dorothy Fowler (Black Swan, 2009)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Witi Ihimaera is a New Zealand literary icon thanks to stories such as Pounamu Pounamu and The Whale Rider, and famous throughout the world thanks to the award-winning film adaptation of the latter. But he’s also playing a key part in cultivating the next generation of local authors, through his leadership of the creative writing programme at the University of Auckland. And in July, one of his recent students, Dorothy Fowler, joined him in the ranks of published authors.

What Remains Behind is an archaeological mystery Fowler worked on while completing her Masters in Creative Writing, under Ihimaera’s tutelage. She was also mentored by award-winning novellist Emily Perkins during the course, which the Waiheke Island resident took after getting hooked on storytelling courtesy of an undergraduate creative writing paper taken as part of completing her degree in archaeology as a mature student.

Fowler’s debut combines her twin passions, centering as it does on a dig near a small rural town in the Kaipara. Chloe Davis is a contract archaeologist who has returned to her family-owned farm to excavate, before the farm is subdivided for lifestyle blocks, the ruins of a religious community that burned to the ground in the 1880s, killing several people. Already under time and budget pressure, Chloe and her team soon encounter local resistance, ranging from bar fights to sabotage and vandalism. Is someone worried that uncovering the past could upset the present? Chloe’s life and work is further complicated by the unknown motives of old acquaintances and interfering relatives.

The story switches regularly between Chloe’s present-day narration, and journal entries made by Charity, a young girl living in the isolated religious community in the lead-up to the tragedy. It’s a literary structure that could flourish or fall flat, but overall Fowler does a very good job, utilising the linked but 120-years-apart storylines to collectively build towards her novel’s denouement. Each has its own voice and language, different enough to seem authentic, without being overdone.

Fowler also creates a nice sense of authenticity with the small-town setting, filled with the spider-web of shared histories, and secrets past or present, that can be prevalent in a place where everyone knows everyone (or at least presumes they do). Fowler also shines with bringing the reader into the world of archaeology, striking a balance between enough details to fascinate and ring true, without overwhelming with technical jargon.

Depending on what sort of mysteries readers are used to, some may struggle with the slower pacing in the early part of the novel; Fowler employs a slow burn, with events unfolding leisurely until the final third of the novel. There’s a growing sense that something is not quite right with the excavation and the nearby town, rather than any sort of focused investigation being sparked by an early hook or crime.

Beyond the alternating narratives, the impact of history on the present is also a wider theme in What Remains Behind. Fowler weaves the colonial and more recent past into the fabric of the story, and things are brought together very well, and not in an entirely predictable way, in the latter stages. Overall, an enjoyable read and a promising debut from a new voice in New Zealand writing.

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