Force of Nature by Jane Harper

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Reviewed by Gill Davies

Following on from her highly-acclaimed first novel, The Dry, Jane Harper has written a second gripping story featuring the harsh Australian outback and a detective called Aaron Falk. Both novels have a powerful, often disturbing, sense of place; and both take us beyond the generic boundaries of crime fiction to think about family and relationships. The author handles her range of characters and the plotting very well, keeping you mystified until the very end – this is a real treat.

Two groups of employees from a Melbourne accountancy firm set out for a team-building exercise in which they have to navigate their way through the the bush of the Giralang Ranges. It should be straightforward and there are camp sites and discreet waymarks along the route but the exercise is intended to test their personal skills as well as their physical fitness. The teams have been chosen to mix pay grades and expertise, and quite soon the clash of personalities emerges.  The men return to the rendezvous point (and the novel isn’t very interested in them) but the five women are late. When they eventually stagger back, exhausted, hungry and with minor injuries, there are only four of them. What has happened to the fifth? The plot focuses on the search for the missing woman, revealing conflicts, rivalries, and secrets. Falk is a Melbourne Federal Agent working in the area of financial crime but he is drawn into this case because the woman who has disappeared (and some of her  team-mates) are critical to his current investigation into money-laundering. The disappearance may be connected with his case – or even with a spate of killings that took place in the area many years before. In addition, for those who have read The Dry (though that isn’t necessary to enjoy this novel) there is the knowledge of Aaron’s own outback experience both while growing up and in the traumatic events of the earlier novel.

There is a lot of intrigue and tension in the situation and Harper handles it really well. She alternates the present-time investigation with flashbacks to the group of women as they experience increasing difficulties and begin to fall apart. This is a page-turner and a compelling psychological thriller. But it is much more, too. It is a novel about father-son and mother-daughter relationships. Here, as in The Dry, Falk is haunted by memories of his failed relationship with his father and that theme runs through the novel, finding a kind of resolution with the denouement of the main plot. Running parallel to this and underpinning the tensions in the women’s group are stories about family: two of the women are twins; two were school friends and now have daughters with problematic lives; and one is the sister of the firm’s chief executive and daughter of its founder. There is lots of scope here for family melodrama, rivalry and aggression. Harper works these themes in with ease and intelligence, making the thriller structure work for her to reveal important social and personal insights. Tension explodes from the danger the group find themselves in – lost, rained on, without shelter, running out of food, and – probably worst of all! – without a mobile phone connection. The characters are revealed in the main through dialogue and action. They are clearly delineated, sympathetically shown, but variously flawed and often unattractive. This makes for a realistic and compelling novel.

The setting adds a further dimension. After a half-day navigation course, one of the women is made responsible for map-reading and way-finding. Anyone who hikes knows this can be stressful. But when four others are relying on you and the terrain was the hiding place of a serial killer, tensions mount. A simple error leads them off the main track:

“Everything went wrong after that. We never found the second campsite so we never got our supplies for that night. We were low on food. We were stupid and the tents got damaged…. It’s almost funny how fast it all fell apart. But we weren’t thinking straight, and we were making bad decisions. It’s difficult to explain what it’s like out there. You feel like the only people left in the world.”

The bush is dense, there are no landmarks to follow and at night it is pitch black. These city women are hopelessly lost and none of their resources of education and experience can help them. The way out is only found thanks to the recall of a strategy learned in a childhood summer camp. Rather than the hoped-for corporate bonding they become more brutal towards and unforgiving of each other. For the resolution of the novel Jane Harper hints at a range of generically feasible endings but finally she goes for something much more satisfying because it is based on the dynamic of inter-personal relationships and plausible psychology. This is altogether a very satisfying and enjoyable novel – and if you haven’t read The Dry, try that as well.

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Jane Harper, Force of Nature  (Little, Brown: London, 2018). 978-1408708200, 376pp., hardback.

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