Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Jane Harper’s fourth mystery/thriller is shaped by life in a small coastal town in Tasmania, Evelyn Bay. Ten years prior, tragedy rocked the community and today, in its barely contained calm, it confronts more awkward questions when a body is found on the beach.
In all her novels, Jane Harper is adept at creating atmosphere and the landscape plays a powerful role in the lives of the characters. In The Dry, it was a drought ravaged rural town in Victoria; the beach and lush bush land largely featured in Force of Nature. The Lost Man was dominated by the harsh conditions of Western Queensland. Evelyn Bay is normally a settlement which comes to life in the tourist season when visitors come to dive the wreck or explore the caves when the tide allows. Otherwise, its life beats unremarkably, even the local watering hole, Surf and Turf is almost deserted.
In ‘The Survivors’, several people of the coastal town are linked by events that shattered its normally quiet existence. Outwardly they appear to have managed to survive the earlier dramas, but now they are forced to face another. Buried emotions are brought to the surface and suppositions fly. All are impacted in different ways, but the principal character, Kieran, is weighed down by guilt and, in an attempt to bury this, is striving to make a life for himself, his partner Mia and baby Audrey. There are his mates Ash and Sean, his parents Verity and Brian, and a visiting writer, George Barlin, hovering and enigmatic.
Suspicion falls on more than one, but the puzzle remains. What really happened? Two perished in the terrifying storm ten years ago, regarded as an accident, and now Bronte, a temporary resident, a shy and charming art student, is found on the beach with signs of strangulation.
The progress of the police investigation and the community dynamic released under the strain are all very convincingly told. Suspense and a longing to know the solution builds.
Partly submerged statues of three survivors guard the caves and remind people of the danger that lies within. In fact, Jane Harper has made them and the town of Evelyn Bay the most vividly striking aspect of the novel. The terrifying power of the tide and its swamping of the caves really grips the reader.
The dialogue in The Survivors is expert and at times provides some insight into characters. However, they remain shadowy and indistinct with few distinguishing features. It becomes a book dominated by narrative, which, for the reader, makes it less engaging.
As the outcome is revealed in a tense and dramatic way, the denouement is clouded by questions. We learn the answer to the camera’s disappearance, but not that of the missing laptop. The strangulation bruises on Bronte are not explained either.
While The Dry remains a superb example of Australian noir, The Survivors is a good mystery in a setting familiar to many but with some shortcomings. As the plot unfolds, it moves steadily and sometimes slowly towards conclusion. Some would argue this mirrors reality. Crimes and suspicious circumstances are rarely investigated and solved quickly, or in the space of an hour, as we see on television!
For more than one reason, it is an apt choice of title. The principal characters’ struggle to survive the trauma of young lives lost, is key. Each has an individual response, being it guilt, resentment, sadness, anger or disappointment. Or a complex mixture….
The menacing attraction of the caves endures and survives possibly life-threatening tides. Statues, lashed by the ocean, remain as witness to this while lives are fragile and easily lost.
The many admirers of Jane Harper’s work will eagerly welcome this latest book. Her consummate skill in bringing quintessential Australian small communities to life is perhaps the most appealing feature in her writing.
Certainly, The Survivors will be on many Christmas lists this year.
by Jane Harper
378 pages $32.99