Thanks to NetGalley and to Little, Brown Book Group UK, for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. I’m also grateful to have been given the opportunity to participate in the blog tour for the launch of the book. After having read both of Jane Harper’s previous books, The Dry and Force of Nature, I rushed to grab this one as soon as I saw it was available. And yes, although it is quite different from the other two, it is another winner.
The two previous books, two thrillers/mysteries, had as protagonist Aaron Falk, a federal investigator of fraud and related crimes, who somehow gets involved in cases outside his comfort zone, for different reasons. Here, there is no professional investigator (however loosely Falk’s credentials might relate to the mystery at hand). I had mentioned in my reviews of the two previous books the fact that the stories put me in mind of domestic noir, and this is even more the case here. It might sound strange to talk about noir when the setting is the Australian outback (the nearest town is Balamara, Winton, Queensland), but plot and character-wise, it fits neatly into the category. And it is atmospheric, for sure. Harper is masterful at making us feel as if we were there, in this unusual and totally unique place, where going out for a walk might end up getting you killed.
The story is set around Christmas time, (summer in Australia), and is told in the third person from the point of view of Nathan Bright, the oldest son of the Bright family, who lives alone in his farm after his divorce, four hours away from the rest of his family, and very far from his ex-wife and his son, Xander, who live in Brisbane. Xander is visiting his father for Christmas (he is sixteen and due to his studies it is likely this might be the last Christmas they spend together for the foreseeable future), and as they prepare to celebrate the holidays, Nathan gets a call. His middle brother, Cameron, has been found dead in pretty strange circumstances. His dead body was by the stockman’s grave, a grave in the middle of the desert subject of many stories and local legends, and a place Cameron had made popular thanks to one of his paintings. Bub, the younger brother, is waiting for Nathan and explains to him that their brother’s car was found nine miles away, in perfect working order, fully stocked with food and water. So, what was their brother doing there, and why did he die of dehydration? When the questions start coming, it seems that Cam, a favourite in town and well-liked by everybody, had not been himself recently and seemed worried. Was it suicide then, or something else?
Nathan is not the typical amateur detective of cozy mysteries, another aspect that reminds me of domestic noir. He is not somebody who enjoys mysteries, or a secret genius, and he only gets involved because he keeps observing things that don’t seem to fit in with the official explanation. As this is his family, he cannot help but keep digging and has to remain involved because, for one, he has to attend his brother’s funeral. The main characters in domestic noir tend to have troubled lives and be hindered by their problems, no matter how convinced they are that they have it all under control. As the book progresses, they learn how wrong they are. In this case, Nathan is a flawed character and lacks insight into his state of mind and that of his life. He has committed some terrible mistakes (perhaps even unforgivable ones), and he is the black sheep of the family, in appearance at least. As you might expect, things are not as they seem, and during the book he grows and learns, and not only about his brother’s death. Nathan might not be the most familiar of characters or the most immediately sympathetic to many readers due to his closed-off nature, but through the novel we also learn about his past and the circumstances that made him the man he is now.
The clues and to the case appear at a slow pace and naturally, rather than feeling forced, and they do not require a lot of procedural or specialized knowledge. There are also red herrings, but most of them go beyond an attempt at wrong-footing readers, and provide important background information that helps build up a full picture of the people and the place. In style the book reminds us of old-fashioned mysteries, without extreme violence or excessive attention being paid to the procedures of the police or to complex tests. No AND tests and no CSI on sight here. This is a book about characters, motivations, and the secrets families keep.
In contrast to the first two novels written by Harper, this book is deceptively simple in its structure. The book takes place over a few days, around Christmas, and, as I said, it is all told from the point of view of Nathan. The story is told chronologically, although there are moments when we get some important background into the story, be it thanks to Nathan’s memories, or to episodes and events narrated to him by other characters. The book manages to keep a good balance between showing and telling and it is very atmospheric, although it moves at its own pace, meandering and perfectly suited to the setting. I’ve never visited the Australian outback and have never experienced anything like the extreme weather conditions described in the book, but I felt the oppressive sensation, the heat, the agoraphobia induced by the open spaces, and the horror of imagining yourself in Cam’s circumstances. The initial setting, with the lonely gravestone, made me think of a Western, and the life in the ranch, isolated and extreme, where surviving requires a daily fight against the elements, made the story feel primordial and timeless. Although the story is set in modern times (there is no specific date, but despite the distance from civilisation, there is talk of mobiles, internet, GPS, etc.), due to the location, people are forced to live as if time had not truly moved on, and they have to depend on themselves and those around them, because if your car or your air conditioning break down, it could mean your death.
Apart from her evident skill in describing Australia and everyday life in the outback (she refers to her research and sources in her acknowledgments), the author is masterful at creating characters that are multi-dimensional and psychologically and emotionally believable, as I explained when talking about the main protagonist. These are people used to living alone and not allowing their vulnerabilities to show. Even within the family, its members keep secrets from each other and don’t share their feelings, although they might all know about what has happened, because that’s what they’ve always seen and known, and perhaps they believe that if you don’t talk about it you can keep it contained. The secrets are slowly revealed, and although many readers will suspect the nature of some of them, that does not diminish their power and impact. The themes discussed are, unfortunately, very current, and although I won’t talk about them in detail, to avoid spoilers, I am sure they will resonate with most readers. Although the ending will probably not be a huge surprise to most readers, it is built up expertly, and I found it very satisfying.
I had to share a couple of samples of writing, although it was a hard choice:
In the centre was a headstone, blasted smooth by a hundred-year assault from sand, wind and sun. The headstone stood a metre tall and was still perfectly straight. It faced west, towards the desert, which was unusual out there. West was rarely anyone’s first choice.
The name of the man buried beneath had long since vanished and the landmark was known to locals —all sixty-five of them, plus 100,000 head of cattle— simply as the stockman’s grave. That piece of land had never been a cemetery; the stockman had been put into the ground where he had died, and in more than a century no-one had joined him.
There was something about the brutal heat when the sun was high in the sky and he was watching the slow meandering movement of the herds. Looking out over the wide-open plains and seeing the changing colours in the dust. It was the only time when he felt something close to happiness… It was harsh and unforgiving, but it felt like home.
In sum, this is a book for people who enjoy an unusual mystery and books focused on characters rather than fast-paced plots. If you love well-written books, and don’t mind investing some time into the story and its characters, especially if you are keen on an Australian setting, you should not miss this one. I will be on the lookout for the author’s next book.