Fam­ily saga set in hos­tile con­di­tions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Robyn Wal­ton

In The Lost Man, Jane Harper sur­passes her achieve­ment in The Dry, her multi-award­win­ning first novel. A broad range of Aus­tralian and in­ter­na­tional read­ers will be en­gaged by the strong set­ting and mys­tery sto­ry­line of the new novel, not least grey no­mads and back­pack­ing trav­ellers.

As in The Dry and her sec­ond novel, Force of Na­ture, Harper fo­cuses on a clus­ter of char­ac­ters in an in­her­ently chal­leng­ing nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. This story is set in south­west Queens­land, where the tree­less ter­rain is dry for 11 months of the year and flooded for the 12th. Af­ter­noon tem­per­a­tures can reach 45C. Out here, a per­son alone, un­shel­tered and with­out water, food and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions can­not ex­pect to live for more than a day or two.

Harper in­vokes the des­o­lat­ing near­ness of the al­most im­pass­able Simp­son Desert to the west, while stop­ping short of bring­ing de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion, cli­mate change and the fu­ture vi­a­bil­ity of arid-zone pas­toral­ism into her plot. The book’s key death takes place in De­cem­ber, with the im­mi­nence of Christ­mas, that bea­con for com­mer­cial sto­ry­tellers, sig­nalling the like­li­hood of an end­ing that com­forts with at least some rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and peace.

Not with­out rea­son, Aus­tralians per­pet­u­ate fears of loved ones los­ing their way or be­ing stranded. It’s a tra­di­tion an­a­lysed by the late Peter Pierce in his The Coun­try of Lost Chil­dren: An Aus­tralian Anx­i­ety. With in­dige­nous tales not in her purview, Harper al­ludes to Euro­pean Aus­tralians’ colo­nial and 20th­cen­tury ac­counts of deaths in risky nat­u­ral con­di­tions. The high mor­tal­ity rates among early set­tlers’ ba­bies in out­back Queens­land are noted too. This en­vi­ron­ment is haunted. When the wind blows, spi­rals of dust rise like ap­pari­tions and the voices of lost chil­dren sound in the air like dingo howls.

New Zealand’s Man Alone tra­di­tion is also rel­e­vant. The per­son who sub­sists far from so­ci­ety, suf­fer­ing in their alien­ation, is a per­son court­ing sui­cide. The lone man’s tra­vails may look like pun­ish­ment in a de­ter­min­is­tic uni­verse; his mus­ings may verge on ni­hilism and ex­is­ten­tial­ism. Harper makes stren­u­ous use of the words “empty” and “noth­ing”. Me­taphor­i­cally this is telling, although on the lit­eral level it jars in a time when we’ve learned from ecol­o­gists and first peo­ples that wilder­nesses are com­plex en­vi­ron­ments.

Harper gives her read­ers sev­eral lost men. In her cin­e­matic pro­logue, she in­tro­duces two men lost to the liv­ing 100-plus years apart. A lone head­stone marks the burial place of a stock­man whose name is now in­de­ci­pher­able; only the bib­li­cal-pas­toral words “who went astray” are still dis­cernible low on the stone. Marks in the red dust form a cir­cle sur­round­ing the head­stone, while on the bare ground at the base of the stone lies a body.

Des­per­ate and in­creas­ingly de­ranged by de­hy­dra­tion, cat­tle farmer Cameron Bright has con­torted within the tiny area of shade af­forded by the head­stone as the sun shifted, and within 24 hours he has died. Peo­ple fa­mil­iar with this coun­try can read the signs: they have seen col­lapsed live­stock leave equiv­a­lent scrab­bled marks.

The cruel im­age might be called Kafkaesque ex­cept that the im­por­tance of so­ci­etal de­ter­mi­nants re­mains to be dis­cov­ered. Ini­tially it is in­ex­pli­ca­ble how and why a man of Cameron’s life­long out­back ex­pe­ri­ence has come to die in such a way.

Nathan Bright, older brother of the pop­u­lar and all-round-ca­pa­ble Cameron, is alive yet has been lost to com­mu­nity and fam­ily for a decade. Liv­ing alone on a prop­erty that will never be prof­itable, he’s a self-sab­o­tag­ing vic­tim of di­vorce, de­pres­sion and os­tracism by towns­peo­ple for a breach of the rule of look­ing out for oth­ers’ wel­fare. It is a tough and rarely for­giv­ing reg­i­men un­der which these peo­ple sur­vive. Xan­der, Nathan’s high-schooler son, is lost to him for most of each year while he stud­ies and so­cialises in Bris­bane. And Bub Bright, younger brother of Cameron, is an un­der­rated and re­sent­ful man.

In­ter­per­sonal ten­sions are elab­o­rated as Harper in­tro­duces the fe­male char­ac­ters liv­ing at the fam­ily homestead, with its pri­vate burial ground.

Freshly wid­owed Ilse, Cameron’s wife, shares re­spon­si­bil­ity for the op­er­a­tion of the main prop­erty, is mother to two ob­ser­vant young girls, and once had a brief re­la­tion­ship with Nathan. English back­packer Katy helps in­doors while her part­ner labours out­doors. Liz, mother of the three Bright broth­ers, is the widow of pa­tri­arch Carl, who died by her side in a car ac­ci­dent 20-odd years ago. Nathan, Bub, and Liz share undis­cussed mem­o­ries of Carl’s dam­ag­ingly dom­i­neer­ing ways.

Con­trac­tors, neigh­bour­ing gra­ziers, an hon­orary un­cle, a con­sci­en­tious nurse-prac­ti­tioner, and trust­wor­thy po­lice of­fi­cers fill out the en­sem­ble cast. Off-screen hover Nathan’s ex-wife and an­other woman whose ex­pected re­turn threat­ens dis­rup­tion.

As a for­mer finance jour­nal­ist, Harper con­vinc­ingly in­te­grates prop­erty di­vi­sion, coown­er­ship, and in­her­i­tance is­sues. She shows how prop­erty, em­ploy­ment, and fam­ily ties, along with do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, can make cap­tives of in­di­vid­u­als across gen­er­a­tions. Aaron Falk, the like­able fi­nan­cial-crimes in­ves­ti­ga­tor pro­tag­o­nist of the pre­vi­ous two nov­els, has no role in this nar­ra­tive, although there is a link to the trou­bled fam­i­lies in the drought-af­fected bad­lands of The Dry.

With the novel’s ac­tion re­quir­ing long on­road and off-road jour­neys, The Lost Man has some char­ac­ter­is­tics of the road movie.

Harper man­ages to keep these ex­cur­sions in­ter­est­ing de­spite her char­ac­ters’ usual la­con­ism. How­ever, a sketch map would help pre­vent read­ers feel­ing dis­ori­ented.

Ul­ti­mately, char­ac­ters con­gre­gate at the homestead for Cameron’s fu­neral and Christ­mas Day, with Harper de­liv­er­ing a cul­pa­bil­ity ex­pla­na­tion that’s both sternly sat­is­fy­ing and ap­palling in the way of Greek tragedy. is a writer and critic.

Nov­el­ist Jane Harper puts her skills as a finance jour­nal­ist to good use

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