Mys­tery lurks be­low sur­face

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Robyn Wal­ton Robyn Wal­ton is a writer and critic.

By Jane Harper Macmil­lan Aus­tralia, 384pp, $39.99 (HB), $32.99 (PB)

Jane Harper’s ca­pac­ity for evok­ing nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments and cre­at­ing char­ac­ters and sto­ry­lines cred­i­bly in­formed by these lo­ca­tions is on dis­play as strongly as ever in her new novel, The Sur­vivors.

Harper’s pro­tag­o­nist, Kieran El­liott, is re­peat­edly drawn back to a site that re­mains sig­nif­i­cant for him: a pair of sea caves at the base of a Tas­ma­nian cliff, their dark mouths open to the ocean. The mag­nif­i­cence and power of the nat­u­ral el­e­ments at this lo­ca­tion are well sug­gested by the book cover.

When the tide comes in, cold wa­ter surges into these caves, ris­ing rapidly to­ward their head-height roofs and in­un­dat­ing their down­ward slop­ing tun­nels. Sud­denly, if a vis­i­tor has been inat­ten­tive, there is an im­mi­nent risk of drown­ing. And, of course, the like­li­hood of death is all the greater if bad weather hits.

Twelve years ago, when he was 18, Kieran was in one of these caves with a girl­friend, tak­ing ad­van­tage of the pri­vacy of the place, while a se­vere storm was ap­proach­ing. The girl, Olivia, es­caped to raise the alarm.

Kieran sur­vived also, but only just. Three peo­ple died nearby. Two were young men, the elder broth­ers of Kieran and his friend Sean. They were com­ing to Kieran’s res­cue in their cata­ma­ran when it cap­sized.

The third was a school­girl, Gabby. Last sighted on the beach, she was pre­sumed to have been swept out to sea. Her body was not found.

Harper does not in­voke the ar­che­typal or psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal res­o­nances of cav­erns or sum­mon Ro­man­tic or Gothic melo­drama when her pro­tag­o­nist re­vis­its this place.

Kieran’s trauma-af­fected mem­o­ries and in­creas­ing un­ease in­side the cave sys­tem are real­is­ti­cally de­scribed, and the fact that he brings his in­fant daugh­ter with him com­pounds the psy­chodrama. The nar­ra­tive is told al­most ex­clu­sively from the point of view of now 30-year-old Kieran, with male friend­ship sig­nalled early on as a thread, and males ma­tur­ing into kind­ness and for­give­ness an emerg­ing theme.

Hav­ing re­turned to his home­town from Syd­ney to see his par­ents, Kieran also ex­pects to catch up with Sean and his other long-time friend, Ash.

Kieran’s part­ner, Mia, is be­mused that he can ex­pect to pick up these friend­ships af­ter a long in­ter­val of noth­ing but spo­radic text mes­sages: “Male friend­ships are so weird.”

Kieran is com­fort­able, how­ever. If his bonds with Sean and Ash were ever go­ing to fail, that would have hap­pened in the days of storm and stress.

When the three men meet up there are joc­u­lar in­sults (Kieran’s baby is “too pretty to be yours, mate”) and mild jibes freighted with re­sent­ment.

The prox­im­ity of Sean’s bel­liger­ent teenage nephew, who blames Kieran for the cata­ma­ran deaths, ran­kles.

The next morn­ing a body is found on the beach. Stu­dent and cafe hand Bronte has drowned, with bruise marks in­di­cat­ing she was held un­der­wa­ter.

With a mur­der case above the pay grade of the town’s fa­mil­iar and le­nient po­lice, a de­tec­tive in­spec­tor ar­rives from the city.

Soon Kieran finds her tak­ing an in­ter­est in the caves, ap­par­ently sus­pect­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the Bronte and Gabby cases.

The sce­nario of an at­trac­tive young woman’s death prompt­ing then-and-now in­ves­ti­ga­tions in a fic­tion­alised re­gional town strug­gling with so­cial change is com­mon in the sub-genre of the psy­cho­log­i­cal mys­tery or do­mes­tic noir.

If Harper wears it bet­ter, rea­sons can be found in her pac­ing and sto­ry­telling (the book is worth reread­ing to savour how clues and mis­di­rec­tions are doled out) and in the de­tailed, touch­ing re­al­ism of her char­ac­ters’ in­ter­ac­tions.

Harper’s un­sen­ti­men­tal evo­ca­tions of how in­di­vid­u­als deal dif­fer­ently with loss and shame are note­wor­thy. She is also alert to how small fam­ily units suf­fer.

Col­lec­tive com­mu­nity re­ac­tions are ad­dressed spar­ingly, how­ever.

Here Harper uses as her com­men­ta­tor a jour­nal­ist­turned-thriller au­thor named GR Bar­lin. He is a poseur in the eyes of Kieran and his peers, but he has a sly wit and Harper has self-ref­er­en­tial fun with him while settling the odd score.

Towns­peo­ple who had re­mained tight knit since the storm are now di­vided fol­low­ing Bronte’s death. Ini­tially they were re­luc­tant to ap­por­tion guilt to any lo­cal boy. Then they be­gan turn­ing against each other on their on­line fo­rum, post­ing li­bel­lous as­ser­tions and griev­ances.

This is Harper’s fourth novel, fol­low­ing The Dry, Force of Na­ture and The Lost Man. She has pro­duced a chill­ing story with so­cio-po­lit­i­cal nu­ances.

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