The story setting is a seven hundred square kilometres cattle station in the Queensland outback, in the heat of late December. Following the death of their father, the station is run by Cameron although his two brothers each have a minority interest. Cameron dies under mysterious circumstances and a whole lot of family issues come to the surface. There are many flashbacks to things that happened in the past that parallel happenings now. The characters are well developed and the story is nicely paced, with many twists and turns.
The dominating feature is the heat and as is emphasised, you don’t spend time out in the open. If your vehicle breaks down you stay with the vehicle until you are found. Yet Cameron died of thirst ninekilometres from his undamaged vehicle.
There are some inconsistencies. A character walks into the cool room amongst frozen food; cool rooms are just that and are not freezers. The generator at the homestead is switched off each night leaving the house in total darkness. A real homestead would have battery operated night lights or would have 24 hour power to keep cool rooms and refrigerators running. One of the characters rides a horse over a distance of about forty kilometres in the heat of the day with no problems.
When Jane Harper writes about the Australian outback, the vastness and searing heat are vivid. So too are the characters who live in this harsh climate. This is another Harper murder mystery. A husband and father is found dead by an old lonely grave. His car is found ninekilometres away. Why someone who knew the landscape so well would wander from his vehicle is beyond strange. In this landscape, without water, it doesn’t take long to die.
What unfolds is the kind of story you sometimes hear in the bush: a somber story of families that look alright on the outside but which contain inter-generational violence and cruelty. Many a man becomes a tyrant, an expert in physical and emotional abuse. This is not apparent at first, as loner Nathan leaves his struggling farm to come home after his brother’s death. Harper treads with sure footing as she unravels the psychological complexities of this family as she did in her previous novels, and the result is as gripping as before. I suspect that many others will do as I did, and read it straight through. Many will empathise with Nathan’s sadness as he considers the results of the choices he has made and be glad about the surprising, but not surprising ending. Top marks.
Remote outback Queensland provides the setting for Jane Harper’s third novel. At the edge of two properties owned by members of the Bright family, in the middle of nowhere, is a grave known to all sixty-five of the locals as the stockman’s grave’. Only three words are visible on the headstone: ‘… who went astray’. It is here that Nathan and Bub Bright find the body of their brother, Cameron (Cam). They are shocked. Cam’s car is nowhere to be seen and he has no water or other supplies. Why would he have left his vehicle, and why was he there?
There’s no evidence of foul play, Cam clearly died of dehydration. His car is located some ninekilometres away, stocked with water and other supplies, and starts easily. So what went wrong?
Slowly, while the Bright family (which includes Cam’s wife and two daughters), prepares for his funeral, Nathan reflects on the past. He’s struggling to work out why Cam died. Some aspects just don’t make sense to him and he can’t let it go. And, as Nathan tries to make sense of it all, he revisits his own past, his failed marriage, a mistake he made which led him to be ostracised.
‘But two people can remember different versions of something and both think it’s the truth .’
To write more about the story might spoil it, and I don’t want to do that. It’s a complicated journey and it’s not always easy to differentiate red herrings from clues. The setting is important: the vast distances, the isolation, the red dust and the burning sun. There is more than one lost man in this story, but there may be some hope.
This is Ms Harper’s third novel. I have enjoyed each of them but this one is my favourite.