The Influence

Frederick McCubbin’s 1886 painting Lost is a touchstone for Jane Harper’s bestselling crime novels The Dry and Force of Nature. By Kate Holden.

Frederick McCubbin’s Lost is a touchstone for Jane Harper’s The Dry

Painting of a woman standing in Australian bushland.
Detail of Frederick McCubbin’s Lost (1886), and Jane Harper (below).
Credit: National Gallery of Victoria (above), Mrs Smart Photography (below)

Jane Harper is the author of the much-loved novel The Dry (2016), which was made into a successful film starring Eric Bana, as well as bestsellers The Lost Man, The Survivors and Exiles, all thoughtful mysteries set in rural or outback Australia that circle around themes of disappearance, haunting and aftermath. She has won many awards, including the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) Book of the Year, the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Fiction and the CWA Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel. The follow-up to The Dry, Force of Nature, was published in 2017 and the film adaptation, again starring Bana and directed by Robert Connolly, will be screening in cinemas nationwide from February 8.

Harper chose to speak with The Saturday Paper about Frederick McCubbin’s iconic 1886 painting Lost, which depicts a young colonial girl alone in the bush. It belongs to the National Gallery of Victoria.

Was it easy to decide on this influence?

It was, it was the first thing that came to mind when I was thinking about what helped inspire the novel Force of Nature. Whenever I’m writing a book there’s always lots of things that feed into it: an image, often music as well. It grounds me and gives me an emotion that helps me reconnect with the story, which is one of isolation and the Australian landscape and the fear of being alone and lost, and the wider impact on people who are left behind. As a writer I find that a really useful tool, to have those emotional touchpoints that you can turn to and help focus on the story.

When I was writing Force of Nature I was pregnant with my first child, then my daughter was an infant; I think at that time I had that hyper-protectiveness you feel around children and particularly your own children, and that sense of dangers being out there, being separated from your child – all those big feelings that come up. Especially with a first child. This really fed into the novel. A big part of the theme is about motherhood and female relationships; I think that’s partly why that painting came to mind. Visually it really captured the tone of the novel that I was looking to write. It’s that idea of the lost child, all alone in the bushland. And the bushland looks so similar to the bushland of today. It makes me really feel connected with the figure; you can imagine so easily that scenario in the present day as well.

Tell me about your novel.

It’s an Australian mystery, about five women who go into the bushland together on a retreat. Only four of them come out. It follows the events of what happens in those days. The mystery for me is always more of the starting point, and the heart of the novel – as with all my novels – is relationships and the connections between characters. Also the ripple effects of a traumatic event on the people in the wider community.

This picture has the isolation, the fear of being lost, being alone. There’s only one person in the picture, but it makes me think of the frantic activity happening outside of the canvas: the fear, the feeling of time running out, everyone trying to resolve this before it’s too late, and what that must feel like for the people who are not in the picture, who are involved. That’s a big part of my writing, I think, when something traumatic has happened: how does it impact everyone who is left behind? And that’s a space I often find myself to be in, in fiction, that quiet aftermath where people are having to reflect on what has happened and what they perhaps could have done differently or what that means to them and what their lives look like now.

You bring tenderness to exploring injuries, psychic or physical, and how that works through a community – and then combine it with a plot, which I really envy! Your books are madly successful: people respond deeply to these stories.

My books are very Australian. The landscape is a really important factor, but even more it’s about finding the emotional connections and giving people a way to understand something they’ve never experienced personally. Most of us, thank goodness, have never been lost in dense bushland but we understand the feeling of being cut off from people we trust, of being forced to rely on ourselves in situations where we don’t feel equipped, feeling cut off from our community and our home. They’re all modern-day experiences a lot of people can relate to. When I was writing Force of Nature, or any of the novels, it was about trying to find that universal experience in the specific scenario.

There’s a fascinating book by Peter Pierce about the “lost child” motif, this deep, atavistic apprehension of vulnerability and the imagined darkness of the native bushland, a hugely popular trope in the 19th century and then in the 20th century, too, in different ways.

It taps into that fundamental fear of isolation – of being cut off from familiarity and safety that we know. It’s not clear how long that girl in the painting has been wandering alone. To my eye, it looks like she hasn’t been gone long: her clothes appear intact and she’s still walking. It’s unclear how far she’s wandered or how long she’s been lost for. That is a really key part of it for me, it’s one element I like to bring out in my books, the way the line in the Australian landscape between safety and danger is a very fine one, and you don’t always know exactly when you’ve crossed it.

Your books are set in normal, common places – music festivals, country towns – which you then make strange and uncomfortable…

The settings are so important, they’re a crucial part. I love it when part of the landscape forms part of the mystery. In Force of Nature it’s this dense bushland that leads the women astray; the way they have to behave so differently in that setting than they do in their normal corporate life. When I’m thinking of a location, I think about what is the relationship between the characters and that setting? Have they grown up there, do they enjoy it or feel uncomfortable there? It’s a big part of building authentic characters and a plausible setting, and ideally by the end of the book I want the readers to think, That story couldn’t have been told in any other location.

Trauma resonates through communities; time contracts. That painting is more than a hundred years old now but still stirs reactions.

It’s the ultimate challenge when you’re producing something creative: to find something that you hope will resonate for a long time. That painting is such an example of that. Why do we, as modern viewers, still feel that haunting sense of fear? There’s something about it that still taps into feelings we have today, still very real. That’s the beauty of it and the real success of it, that years later it still taps into that human emotion that is so familiar to us.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2024 as "Jane Harper".

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