I admit that I'm not the best person to read a map, heck don't even give me north, south, east, or west directions or I'll probably give you one of "what you talking about" looks but out of all these girls, not one of them can read a map?
Five women set out on a trek through the Bush, part of a corporate retreat. Only four of them return. AFP officer Aaron Falk has to find out what happened to Alice, and whether it’s linked to his latest case, a case where Alice was the whistleblower and chief witness.
Force of Nature is a welcome return for Aaron Falk, introduced in The Dry. I liked Aaron even more in this novel, there is a little more about his relationship with his father revealed but he still has an air of mystery surrounding him.
There is something claustrophobic about the story, despite it being set in the Girlang Ranges of Australia. The bush and the peaks close ranks on the women, making them and the reader feel more contained that would be expected. This sense of claustrophobia is also enhanced by the limited cast of characters.
The story alternates between the five women and their trek into the Ranges and to the present day and Falk and his colleague Carmen’s investigations into Alice’s disappearance. I liked this style of narration and thought it worked well, building up the layers of the story. There were some strands of the story I would have liked to see develop more, but enough took place to keep me interested.
All of the women have issues and facets of their personality to dislike. Alice in particular is not portrayed as a nice person and this obviously reflects on the story as her interaction with the others unfolds. As the story progresses we see the relationships and social structure of the group break down, and the effect such a breakdown has on the situation the women find themselves in.
An entertaining read. I look forward to reading more from Jane Harper in the future.
"Force Of Nature" takes place some months after the events in "The Dry". Aaron Falk is back working in Financial Crimes in Melbourne, tracking down contracts to make a money laundering case against a family firm. The firm has an "Executive Adventure" retreat in the mountains which involves a team of five men and a team of five women navigating through the bush over the course of a weekend. At the end of the weekend, only four of the women make it out. The missing woman is the contact Falke has been pressuring to steal copies of contracts for him. Falk and his partner go to investigate.
This is very cleverly told tale, moving along two timelines in parallel. The main timeline, the search for the missing woman and the investigation of the circumstance of her disappearance, is interspersed with the details of what happened in each day in the women's team as the hiked the trail.
Without ever making me feel like I was being cheated, Jane Harper fed me bits and pieces of information about the women on the hike that kept changing my assessment of them as individuals and of their relationships to each other. Naturally, I was also kept guessing about what happened to the missing woman. The resolution was satisfying and plausible.
Unlike in "The Dry", Falk is not the focal point of this investigation. We continue to learn more about him and he behaves in a way that is consistent with the man we met in "The Dry" but he is instrumental rather than central this time. I thought the book was stronger for that.
I liked the way this book presented women. It's quite rare to read crime books that pass the Bechdel Test of having at least two women talking to each other about something other than a man. "Force Of Nature" is MAINLY about women talking to each other.
We see the power of the bond between mothers and daughters and between (twin) sisters and the conflicts that arise from hierarchy and dominance. These women are clearly drawn and very believable. The verbal fights and physical violence that these women get into are tough and harsh but still different from the same kind of conflicts between men. My impressions of the women kept shifting as I learned more about them and they emerged as individuals with very different views of the same events.
It seems to me that the title refers to two forces of nature: the power of the bush to threaten our well-being and trigger survival behaviours that conflict with how we present ourselves back in the city and the power of family to summon sacrifice and guilt as well as love.
The book also looks at the pressure the Internet puts young girls under and what they do to themselves and each other to deal with that pressure.
This is a good, page-turning, mystery that is made richer by strong characters behaving realistically in a difficult situation.
I liked Falk and enjoyed seeing his view of events. There was just enough development of him to build a basis for a great series here.
I listened to the audiobook version. Although it had the same narrator as "The Dry", it didn't work quite so well this time. Partly this was because it's a challenge to have a narrator do so many different women's voices and partly because the editing was a little sloppy with a couple of sections with repeated sentences of mispronounced words. It was still a comfortable listen but adding a second narrator for the second timeline would have made for a better listening experience.
Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample
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This is a bit of a peculiar situation. After reading great things about this novel and requesting the author’s second novel Force of Nature (you can check my review here) from NetGalley, I had to read it quickly to take part on a blog tour. When I looked at other reviews, there were so many comparisons to the first novel (although it can be read as a standalone) that I felt I should read the first novel to make my own mind up. That means I will be comparing the first novel to the second, rather than the other way around. Sorry. Why do things the easy way when one can complicate matters?
There is no doubt that Harper knows how to set a story and how to take full advantage of the landscape, atmosphere, and characteristics of the place and the people. She sets the story during a terrible drought in Australia, specifically in Kiewarra, and has the main protagonist (who is also the main character in Force, Aaron Falk, a police detective specializing on fraud and financial crimes) return to his place of birth, twenty years after having left in unfortunate circumstances. The story is also told in the third person, mostly from Falk’s point of view, although we also have fragments, that are differentiated from the rest of the story by being written in italics, that go back to the events that happened many years back (the events that made Falk and his father leave town when he was an adolescent), and also to the more recent deaths. These fragments, also written in the third person, are told from a variety of points of views, although it is not difficult to know which character’s point of view we are sharing. (Some readers enjoy the style and others don’t, so I’d recommend checking a sample of the book before making a decision).
In this story, Falk is called to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke, who has seemingly killed his wife and young son, and then committed suicide, only leaving his baby daughter (13 months old) alive. Luke’s parents are convinced that their son has not killed his family and himself, and ask for Falk’s help. The current killings bring back memories of the death of a young girl who was Falk and Luke’s friend and with it the suspicions of his possible involvement.
The mystery has some elements of the police procedural (as Falk joins forces with the new police Sergeant, Raco), also of the domestic noir (there are many secrets, mostly family secrets buried deep, and relationships that are not what they seem to be at first sight), and there are plenty of suspects, clues, red herrings, to keep us guessing. But the book does not follow a straight linear narrative, as I mentioned; it does go into plenty of detail about things that do not seem to be always relevant to the murders, and its pace is not what we are used to in more formulaic thrillers. It is slow and contemplative at times, and the past weighs heavily on the investigation (especially on those who have matters pending). Although most of the violence takes place outside the page, and this is by no means the most explicitly violent novel I’ve read (I’m difficult to shock, though), there is violence and it deals in pretty dark subjects, so be warned. Whilst in some crime novels, even very dark ones, there are light and humorous moments that help release tension; there is hardly any of that here. What we have are insightful and contemplative moments, which go beyond the usual snarky comments by the cynical detective.
As an example, a particularly touching comment by Barb, Luke’s mother, talking about the aftermath of her son’s death:
‘No-one tells you this is how it’s going to be, do they? Oh yes, they’re all so sorry for your loss, all so keen to pop round and get the gossip when it happens, but no-one mentions having to go through your dead son’s drawers and return their library books, do they? No one tells you how to cope with that.’
I thought the small town was realistically portrayed. The envies, the resentment, the discomfort of knowing that everybody is aware of everybody else’s business, and the prejudices and the tensions in a place where nobody can hide, and where you are never given the benefit of the doubt, felt true to life. Although I’ve never visited Australia, the dynamics of the place and its inhabitants, subject to major tensions due to the uncertainty the draught had brought to the local economy, create an atmosphere that is tense and oppressive, even if the story is not fast-paced.
The characters, in my opinion, are somewhat more clearly divided down morality lines in this novel than in the second, although it is not so evident in the beginning. Whilst in Force none of the characters come out of the book unscathed, and most of them are morally suspect, here there are good characters (although they might not appear to be) and some truly bad ones. Most of the characters (at least the good ones) carry a burden of guilt (in most cases for things they are not truly responsible for), whilst the bad characters seem unable/unwilling to take responsibility for their actions, no matter how cruel. As is the case for many investigators, Falk is also investigating his own past, and that is why he finds it so difficult to resolve the case. This process of rediscovery and personal digging will continue in the next novel. I would not say Falk is an immediately likeable character. I found him more consistent and easy to understand in the second book (of course, by then he had survived to the events of this novel, which would have had an impact on him), although he seems to come alive in some of his interactions with others (particularly Luke’s mother, a great character).
Overall, I felt the mystery part of the story is more intriguing and well-resolved here (even though the past case keeps interfering with the present; there are not as many loose ends and red-herrings here), although I did not mind that aspect of the second novel (that I found more morally complex). For me, this one is more of a novel for mystery lovers, especially for those who prefer to take their time and enjoy a different setting to the usual urban thriller. The second novel in the series pays more attention to how the story is told and to the characters themselves. But there is no doubt that Harper is a great writer and I’m sure we’ll keep reading her and about her in the future.
Ah, don’t miss this post with a recommendation of a book that people who have enjoyed The Dry might like (and I could not agree more. I love The Silent Kookaburra by Liza Perrat).