What Remains of Her is book #4 of Rickstad’s that we’ve reviewed here at PopMythology. You can re-cap our takes on his previous works, The Names of Dead Girls (review), The Silent Girls (review), and Lie in Wait (review), but to summarize, we are fans. What Remains of Her has only strengthened our opinion that Rickstad is an author to put on your automatic to-read list.
One of our favorite aspects of Rickstad’s work is the way in which he weaves his rural Vermont setting as character in its own right into his novels. By character, I am referring not only to the nature of things, but also as an agent and actor of the story itself. In his writing, Rickstad seems to implicate not only the actual human perpetrator of the crimes, but also metes a level of shared guilt out to the setting as well. These are the dark woods of old fairy tales – evil things happen here and because of here.
What Remains of Her once again takes place in these cold, damp, early winter Vermont woods also. A woman and her young daughter disappear without a trail to follow. With evidence, the husband is implicated by the town to fill in the gaps of in the story. At best, his wife and daughter must have fled from him. At worst, he killed them both and disposed of them. The isolation of the town and the ready presence of these dense, desolated woods means that the fact of missing bodies need not be a source of doubt or questioning.
This story setup leads the reader to believe that we are in for a thrilling, Jonathan Kellerman-style mystery crime story. We settle in to our early understanding of the potentials victims, suspect, the local sheriff, and get ready to follow along for the solve. But then Rickstad yanks that familiar notion out from under feet by fast-forwarding the clock. Decades later, we get a glimpse of what living under uncertainty has done to the survivors- the husband and his daughter’s best childhood friend. Neither can repair the internal damage resulting from the mother and daughter’s disappearance as they cannot assess the nature of it nor take its measure without knowing what happened.
Rickstad delivers on the promise of an engaging mystery novel, but additionally gives us much to contemplate about the human need for closure. We see the devastation from the lack of it, but also the dangers of taking short cuts to obtain it. The town’s implicit conviction of the husband reminds us to be wary of mentally substituting the most probable or the most likely for truth and reality. We do this all the time with stories in the media. The human mind dislikes ambiguity and uncertainty, so we erase small but non-zero chances that our explanations are wrong and alternatives are possible. In What Remains of Her, Rickstad presents the danger of this, but also shows of the mental cost of leaving those possibilities open longer-term.
In summary, if you are already a Rickstad fan, don’t miss this one; it’s his best to date. If you haven’t already read one of his novels, go ahead and start here. Rickstad is a rare talent and contains to develop a stronger, more distinct, and more powerful voice with each novel. It would come as no surprise in the future to find his section in the library/bookstore shelves with as many well-read selections as a Stephen King or Kathy Reichs.