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After ‘The Dry’ – Jane Harper’s next three novels

Since coming across Jane Harper’s ‘The Dry’ a couple of months ago, I have consumed her other three books – ‘Force of Nature’ and ‘The Lost Man’ (by audio book), and ‘The Survivors’ (as a book).

Both Force of Nature and The Lost Man kept me awake at night, listening on and on, as the stories unfolded.

Force of Nature is set in dense bush, and it becomes a menacing character within the novel. It starts in a really relatable way for anyone who has been dragged into a corporate ‘all in this together’ team building exercise away from the office. Five women with not too much in common apart from they all work in the same place, sent off on a two night tramp, with a compass and a map, into the rain. No one really wants to be there.

As the story unfolds we come to understand that more binds these women together than we realise. Two are twin sisters. There’s guilt between them. One stole from the other when she was in the grip of drug dependency. The other reported her to police, sending her to jail. One of these sisters is thin and all sorted, set to climb the career ladder. The other is overweight, smoking, grateful for a dead end job in archives as it’s difficult to get a job after you’ve been in jail.

Then there is the smart but spiky woman who has a surprising loyalty to the nervier one. We learn as the story goes on that they are both mothers to daughters of a similar age. The fifth woman is also not really keen to be here, but comes out of duty to her brother. They share ownership of the company which has organised and funded this trip.

When the smart but spiky one says she needs to go home, the owner-sister says no. You have to stay the course, like the rest of us. The reason she was desperate to go home, eventually comes to light, along with the tensions between the twins, and the complex connection between the spiky one and the nervy one.

The women become lost – which intensifies the tensions between them as they are forced to stay overnight in a spooky cabin, which may have been used by a fugitive rapist. As the problems worsen the police become involved, including the police detective from The Dry (Jane Harper’s first novel), who makes a welcome return. He has a new off-sider, a woman who asks a lot of questions about why he is so alone, so minimalist, with nothing going on in his life other than his work as a cop. These two police officers help the reader to learn the back stories of the women lost in the bush and to uncover the truth of what happened out there.

Jane Harper’s next novel is called The Lost Man. I hesitated to start this one – it has a really gruesome inciting incident that we return to throughout the novel. Again, the land is a central player in the novel, this time outback Australia, an unforgiving place where if you lose contact with your vehicle you’re (literally) toast.

It’s a place where the land shapes the people, and where it’s a four hour drive to meet your neighbours. If you live out here you make do with what you’ve got, and could be cut off from the nearest town for a month or so if the river floods. The generators get turned off at night to save the precious energy.

The brother of a man who dies has a role similar to the police cop in Jane Harper’s first two novels. He’s a loner – cut off from other people by a mistake he made 10 years ago for which he hasn’t been forgiven – along with geographic and economic isolation. He owns impoverished land where it’s almost impossible to make a living, let alone sell the land, and is weighed down by debts – and an ex-wife who is refusing to allow his son to visit.

The novel opens with the loner brother getting a call from Bub to come to The Lost Man’s grave site … he is standing vigil there – where he has discovered their brother (Cam) dead from dehydration and heat. It looks like he somehow got separated from his vehicle, which is parked 9km away, even though everyone out there knows you must stay with your vehicle.

The loner brother returns with Bub to the farm – and he has Xander in tow with him – his son, here on a rare visit for Christmas. They go to the family home – where his brother Bub, their mother, Cam’s wife and children, and Harry, the loyal farm worker all live. Over the next few days the brother spends more time with his family than he has in a long time … but he is unable to ignore his unrest about the circumstances. He goes back to The Lost Man’s grave site several times. He talks to Elsa (Cam’s wife) about what was going on before Cam left and never came back.

Two backpackers living on the property and helping out stand awkwardly on the edge of this grieving family. The loner brother gets deeper and deeper into the tensions within the family, continuing to prod at possible reasons for his brother’s death. My suspicion of ‘what happened’ circulated around a number of possible causes, but the ending floored me. This is a fabulous, gripping story, permeated with outback dust.

The Survivors takes us into new territory, to a coastal settlement in Tasmania. Here it is the ocean that can swiftly end lives. Kieran returns to Evelyn Bay after 10 years away to help his parents to pack up. His father has dementia and must go into a home. His mother will be finding a place to live nearby. Kieran is returning with his girlfriend Mia (also from Evelyn Bay) and their three-month old daughter, Audrey.

There’s a reason he doesn’t come back much. Twelve years ago he had been fooling around with a girl in the caves. They didn’t notice the storm getting up, the tide coming in sooner than expected, and Kieran was caught in the water. The girl sent out an emergency call, and Kieran’s brother and best friend came out in their boat to rescue him, but the boat tipped over and they both died. Kieran managed to get back up the cliff on his own, but lives with major survivor guilt.

Kieran’s relationship with his parents has not been the same since then. And yet, here he is, back in the township where the son of the other man who died is quick to blame Kieran for how messed up his life has been since he lost his father that day. Kieran’s friends from that time are still in the town – Ash and Sean flat together at the edge of the water. Olivia is also back, as her mother has fallen to pieces, ten years after her other daughter went missing, on that same fateful day of the storm.

The backstory to this plot may sound chaotic and too much, but it isn’t. Jane Harper’s clear writing style brings you into the story gradually, while you’re walking around the town with Kieran, with his daughter Audrey strapped to his chest. He and his girlfriend (Mia) met in Sydney, but their shared history is here in this place, with these people. They’re exhausted from parenthood but they agree to meet up with the old friends at the Surf and Turf. That’s where they see Bronte – Olivia’s flatmate for the summer – who is an art student, but doing a summer of waitressing at the Surf and Turf so that she can live on the coast and use it as inspiration for her upcoming art works.

The next day Bronte is found dead on the beach, and the whodunnit question roils around the community, particularly given Gabby (Olivia’s sister and Mia’s best friend) washed up on the beach twelve years ago. Is it connected, or a completely separate incident?

I have written about all three novels here together, given I have read or listened to them in one enthralled rush over the past month. Jane Harper is a former journalist, and this is reflected in her writing – her ability to present us with the facts, evoke the situation ad describe the environments in which it all unfolds.

There is a common theme in all these novels – they are all set in isolated settlements in unforgiving, vast and impressive environments. In all cases, there is someone trying to figure out what happened. There’s also a heavy load of guilt and blame being carried by the central characters, who are very likeable but cast in the role of an outsider from the people around them.

Bring on the next one!

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