Fiction – Kindle edition. Flatiron Books, 2019. Originally published 2018. 352 pgs. Purchased.
In the desolate outback of Queensland, Australia, Nathan meets his youngest brother, Bub, at a solitary, weather-battered grave dating back to the nineteenth century. A spooky air has always surrounded the grave; the locals imagining a number of horrible fates for the man buried there.
Nathan, though, has always figured the man died from exposure to this unforgiving landscape – a landscape where heat and a scarcity of water are constant threats, yet floods can strand a family for months. The kind of landscape that his middle brother, Cam, knew how to plan for, having lived and ranched in this region all of his life.
Which is why the discovery of Cam’s body at the stockman’s grave doesn’t sit right with Nathan, Bub, or Nathan’s teenaged son, Xander. Cam would have known better than to leave his fully stocked car; Cam wouldn’t have walked nearly ten kilometers across this landscape to the grave without something — or someone – forcing him to do so.
When no signs of foul play are found, the cop dispatched from St. Helens writes the death off as a suicide. The family and their employees admit that Cam was acting odd for the past few weeks, and it isn’t hard to imagine a man losing hope after spending years trying to eke out an existence on this landscape.
Except Nathan can’t accept the suggestion that Cam committed suicide. Cam has always been well liked in town – far more than Nathan ever was – and his cattle business is faring better than Nathan’s. Nathan is determined to uncover what really happens, but his search leads him to realize how much of a mirage Cam’s life really was.
After Harper’s debut novel, The Dry, made my Top Ten List in 2017, I’ve eagerly awaited each of her subsequent novels, pre-purchasing them on Amazon even before their US publication date is announced. I was particularly interested in reading this one because it is a departure from her previous two novels; her principal investigator, Aaron Falk, is nowhere to be found and the mystery solved by a family member rather than an old friend with formalized training.
Some elements are the same: the main character is rejected by his few neighbors over a misunderstanding about a past deed, fathers and sons whom are incapable of discussing their feelings, and a landscape that is a character in the novel as much as it is the setting.
That last similarity, though, is what disappointed me the most about this novel. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of traveling to Australia, and most of my familiarity with the landscape is due to a satellite imagery-driven exercise in mapping and quantifying bushfire risk.
But I’ve traveled to the Outback via books many times, and this novel provides the same portrait of this landscape as other novels I have read. I missed the sweeping, spooky, and unique landscapes of Harper’s previous novels, especially that of Force of Nature.
Like her previous novels, the mystery does move at a quick pace, and I liked her return to more of a character-driven mystery rather than the police procedural focus of Force of Nature. Unfortunately, much like the cliched landscape, the actions and motivations of the characters follow a familiar refrain and the conclusion is easy to guess as Nathan uncovers the truth about his brother’s nature.
The saving grace of this novel was the main character, Nathan. His dynamic with his son and the question of why he was rejected by his community – and, later, how or if he will try to reconnect with them – was what kept me reading this one late into the night.
Unfortunately, these elements weren’t enough to make this novel as remarkable or intriguing as Harper’s previous novels. No word on when her next novel will be published or if it will focus on Aaron Falk, but here’s to hoping the next one will be more imaginative than this one.