Force of Nature
“Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things. One: No one saw the bushland swallow up Alice Russell. And two: Alice had a mean streak so sharp it could cut you.” Jane Harper sure knows how to start a novel, and with a beginning like that, who could resist?
Second-novel syndrome is a common phenomenon. Most writers suffer from it or at least a fear of it – they’re usually harder to write and not as good. When your debut novel has been as successful as The Dry, you may well feel a bit more of that pressure. The Dry, a country murder thriller, reached No. 1 in Australian fiction sales, won multiple awards and caused bidding wars around the world.
Jane Harper’s new novel, Force of Nature, centres around what happened to Alice Russell, who disappeared after a team-building experience in the Giralang Ranges. Our relatable hero from The Dry, federal police agent Aaron Falk, returns to help find her. While you don’t have to have read Harper’s first book to enjoy this one, the story relating to Falk does build on its predecessor. There are various other characters who have engaging backstories, though some of the themes that arise can seem a little generic – daughters suffering from anorexia, bullying, social media.
The narrative is finely constructed, with perfectly measured pace and suspense. So much so that it reminded me of another master of form, Liane Moriarty. As with Moriarty, Harper has that rare touch that manages to cross the genre divide and appeal more widely to general readers.
Harper has also harnessed what captivates the Australian psyche – the landscape. The Dry is set in a small country town in drought, and this time she takes us into the bush. The bush is a living breathing force and each description adds to a growing sense of malevolence: “bushland pushed in from every side”, bark “like flayed skin”, invisible kookaburras that “laughed and screamed”. There are echoes of Picnic at Hanging Rock and Lord of the Flies as any appearance of civility slips away and the women lose direction in a hostile landscape.
So does Harper’s new book live up to the first? I was thrilled to find that it does. The novel delivers and Harper writes like a dream. WZ
Macmillan, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 23, 2017 as "Jane Harper, Force of Nature ". Subscribe here.