Reviewed in Australia on 8 January 2017
There isn’t a thing I’d change about this debut novel from talented Aussie author Jane Harper. The Victorian rural town of Kiewarra is suffocating under the oppression of heat and prolonged drought. While some farmers and shopkeepers are still clutching at small straws of hope, others have walked off or sold out to foreign investors.
Then, a murder/suicide is discovered. It’s not the first in desperate country Australia, and the Hadlers were struggling. Luke Hadler has apparently shot-gunned his wife and his boy at home, leaving a baby daughter crying in her cot, and then finished himself off in his ute in the forest.
His former best mate, Aaron Falk, is now a Melbourne cop, and he has been summoned by Luke’s father with a letter saying: “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.”
Growing up, his own family life was lousy, and the Hadlers’ place felt like home, so of course he goes to the funeral. He’s also fearful of what the accusation of lying might mean.
In high school, Luke, Aaron, and Ellie had run around together as a group, as kids do, swimming in the river, and when the amusing, effervescent Gretchen ( “the human equivalent of bubble bath”, says Ellie) joined them, they began to pair off. Luke was always the charismatic leader, Aaron was the more aware, sensitive to moods.
Then there was an incident at the river, and while the boys swore they were together, shooting rabbits somewhere else, they have no proof. Rumours point to Aaron, and he and his father are run out of town.
“The rumours were fed well by Ellie’s father, Mal Deacon, and grew fat and solid. They sprouted legs and heads and they never died.”
Now, Aaron’s counting down the hours until he can leave again. One night, in a room over the pub, and that’s it – back to the city. Till then, he’s got to make it through the funeral of his mate, the mate’s wife he never met, and the little boy in the tiny, heart-breaking coffin. Then the wake with Luke’s parents and Luke's surviving baby, where the bubbly Gretchen greets him unexpectedly with a big hug and a little boy.
When Luke’s mum asks the friends to try to remember how her son loved his family, a local loudmouth pipes up with “Yeah, ‘til he butchered them.”
Grant Dow was “. . . a large man wearing his mid-forties badly. Fleshy biceps that were more fat than muscle strained against his t-shirt as he folded his arms. His face was ruddy, with a scruffy beard and the defiant look of a bully. He stared down each person who tried to chastise him, until one by one they looked away.”
Harper’s characters are real people – I’ve seen countless blokes like this at livestock sales. Every one of these men and women could be innocent, complicit, or guilty, and we wonder if Aaron will stick around long enough to help the local copper unravel not only this tragedy, but clear his name from the one twenty years ago.
Fantastic story in a setting where I recognise every fly, every paddock, every cloud of dust and crackle of leaves.
“It was paved, but not well. Deep cracks showed where the bitumen had swelled and shrunk with the seasonality of a crop.”
. . .
“The huge river was nothing more than a dusty scar in the land. The empty bed stretched long and barren in either direction, its serpentine curves tracing the path where the water had flowed. The hollow that had been carved over centuries was now a cracked patchwork of rocks and crabgrass. Along the banks, gnarled grey tree roots were exposed like cobwebs.
It was appalling.”
As for finding evidence and clues:
“. . . the bushland sprawled dense and heavy. it seemed to shiver in the heat. It gave nothing away. . . ‘Going to be some bl**dy hunt, . . . best hiding place in the world out there.’ ”
Harper writes in the present, but as memories are triggered, she introduces excerpts from twenty years ago in italics, making it very easy not only to follow, but to remember what characters already know as they are trying to make sense of new situations. I’ve seldom seen it so well done.
The pub, the town, the cop shop, the milk bar, the school – they are all very real – as of course are the dust and heat that no amount of air conditioning can dispel.
Absolutely fantastic! And I haven’t even mentioned how intricately she wove, then unravelled, the mysterious threads so that we’re never quite sure who is lying or just mistaken, who is trustworthy, who is just hoping for the best.
Remarkable book and impossible to believe it’s her first! Thanks to NetGalley and Little Brown for the preview copy from which I’ve quoted.