Wednesday 26 December 2018

Book review: The Lost Man, Jane Harper (2018)

This competent thriller was for me an exasperating read for much of its length. It urges you forward and drops crumbs in your path to guide you, but you are left grasping for clues until you are practically at the end of the book. Time and time again I felt the need to give up but something kept me tapping the pages and in the process the drama has a finale that contains a rebuke that is all the more compelling for its gentleness.

I’m not a farmer and while I lived in a regional town for a number of years I have never lived in a rural area, so I don’t feel completely confident saying whether this book’s message is deserved, although I spent several years writing stories about agriculture for magazines and my uncle and aunt were dairy farmers. But the way things turn out seems to be quite natural – nothing felt forced – and frankly I can’t think of a better compliment to give a book.

The drama turns on the death of Cameron Bright in the remote outback on a property he owns. It is just before Christmas. The nearest town is Balamara, and it is located 1500km west of Brisbane. Nathan, Cameron’s brother, is the character through whom the entirety of the novel is focalised, and over time you build a strong feeling that attaches to his personality. It’s not clear to the police how Cameron had been marooned away from his car, which is found nearby, but it is clear that exposure to the elements in this unforgiving environment resulted in his death.

Nathan is not without skeletons in his cupboard. He had married the daughter of the owner of a nearby property but that relationship turned out badly. One day, when Nathan is leaving town, he passes the man, whose name is Keith Walker, as Keith is having a heart attack. He doesn’t stop. The two men had exchanged sour words shortly before. The town ostracises Nathan and he fails to follow up on a brief romance with a Dutch backpacker named Ilse because of the general opprobrium aimed at him. Ilse marries Cameron and is soon pregnant.

Nathan, Cameron and Bub, the three Bright brothers, had grown up with a violent father. Carl died in a car accident but his wife, Liz, survived. Living on Cameron’s cattle station as well as Liz is Harry, a long-time employee who helps run the property. Also on hand are two backpackers, and Nathan’s son Xander. There is an unexpected pregnancy and discovering who the father of the child is helps Nathan uncover the truth about Cameron’s death.

The thing that runs through this novel is the importance of individual conduct. In such an isolated place, the way people behave is a strong determinant for the health of the community. Carl was a poor example for his children but Nathan turns out ok. Bub still has scars from early mistreatment. Cameron, who remains a presence throughout the narrative, eventually comes into focus as a dark figure. While Nathan eventually finds out who did what and why, the secret is a long time coming and the dedicated reader will be rewarded with a surprise at the end of the book.

What struck me while reading this book was the way all of the characters are given their due. As in a Jane Austen novel, each person is delineated in enough detail to allow the reader to include them in the story. And each character is a complete form, with their own personality and with a backstory. Nathan’s ex-wife, Jacqui, is treated with respect and the figure of Glenn, the regular town policeman, is very well-drawn. So the characterisation is strong, but I also found this to be a novel with a well-conceived central idea. While you are busy trying to figure out the reason for Cameron’s death, the author is carefully assembling a set of messages about kindness and the importance of community that reflect a deep understanding of the Australian bush.

It’s not just about dust and distances, it’s also about character and morals. You rely on your neighbour and so the way each person behaves assumes a kind of mythic quality. People in the bush tend to be more considerate of how others feel than city folk, and also more conscious of the impression that they personally make on others, which can be something that may occasionally convince young people brought up in rural areas to want to escape to the anonymity of the big city.

For a crime thriller like this, where things are reduced to their bare essentials, the locale chosen by the author seems appropriate. The only element I felt was missing from this drama (backpackers, who provide a measurable quantity of the labour in rural communities, are represented here) is workers associated with the gas industry. The particular area where the book’s events take place is in the general vicinity of where large conventional gas operations are located. There are also a lot of unconventional gas extraction wells (for coal-seam and shale gas) dotted around the countryside in Queensland. These types of installations require people to erect and maintain them.

I think that most people will be able to find something here to like. For me in the end there was a sense of peace that was distinctly at odds with the feeling that animated the majority of the book. This is a great treat for people looking for a page-turner to read during the holidays.

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