Crime Scene: JANE HARPER The Dry. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
There is a very good reason for all the buzz around about The Dry, another great debut thriller from an Australian writer.
In a country with a lot of mythology built around rural connections, it has always come as a surprise how much of Australia’s rural-based crime fiction is slightly off the mark. It often feels as if authors are comfortable appropriating the sense of distance and isolation into something sinister and ‘other’, but less comfortable acknowledging the positives or the subtleties. For readers who know the bush, there can be a sense that much of what is written is lacking in nuance or awareness of the less obvious aspects of life outside the city limits.
Those readers can rest assured that Jane Harper, a UK/Australian city-based journalist turned author is not afraid to write something realistic in The Dry. She delivers something that seems like a scrupulously fair depiction of life in a small rural location struggling with the despair of drought when the seemingly unthinkable happens:
The drought had left the flies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra levelled their rifles at skinny livestock. No rain meant no feed. And no feed made for difficult decisions, as the tiny town shimmered under day after day of burning blue sky.
At least the blowflies were happy. The finds that day were unusual, though. Smaller and with a smoothness to the flesh. Not that it mattered. They were the same where it counted.
Kiewarra is a fictional location, but the struggle, the decisions, the day-to-day difficulties, are in tune with much of rural experience:
‘It’ll break,’ the farmers said as the months ticked over into a second year. They repeated the words out loud to each other like a mantra, and under their breath to themselves like a prayer. But the weathermen in Melbourne disagreed. Besuited and sympathetic in air-conditioned studios, they made a passing reference most nights at six.
The nuance most often missed by outsiders passing through small communities is the balancing act that is daily life. There are tensions bubbling away, often managed for the sake of unity. There is also great fun and enormous affection for fellow locals, and frequently tolerance and understanding of differences. Of course there’s also the direct opposite, which is the point. Life in rural locations is exactly the same as it is for any community, plus travelling time. Something like a family murder-suicide creates the need for the ultimate balancing act. Locals must mourn the loss, despair of the motivations that might have caused it and how any warning signs could have been missed – whilst simultaneously supporting the remaining family. Imagine the Hadler parents’ dilemma – was their much-loved son Luke so desperate that he would stalk and kill his own wife and young son? If he was, how could they not have known?
‘Look, there’s barely anyone in Kiewarra who’s not at the end of their tether. But honestly, Luke didn’t seem to be struggling any more than anyone else. At least not in a way anyone’s admitting seeing.’
It makes enormous sense that the only man with a chance of explaining the inexplicable is an insider, who was forced out years before. Luke Hadler and his childhood friend Aaron Falk, as well as the rest of the Kiewarra community, already had an inexplicable death on their collective conscience. Falk returns because Luke’s father needs to know if his son has a history that’s never been revealed, and Falk is the only person who can fill in some long papered-over cracks: ‘From Gerry Hadler, eight words written with a heavy hand: Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.’
There’s a multi-layered secret at the heart of this community. It weaves its way around and through every person, infecting old-timers and blow-ins alike. It happened years ago and it’s never gone away, never been completely explained. It revolves around Luke, Aaron, the girls Gretchen and Ellie and the sort of intense, complicated teenage friendship that happens everywhere: ‘They’d all been so tight. Teenage tight, where you believe your friends are soul mates and the bonds will last forever.’
Only — one of them died young, one was forced out of town, two tried to stay bonded and failed, and now only two of them are left. They both bear witness to the events of the past, and to the unravelling of their friends’ stories.
That close childhood connection is an effective way of revealing the characters of the dead: Gretchen seeing teenage Ellie with the hindsight of age and experience while Falk sees Luke as another flawed and complicated teenager – close friend, possible rival. This gives Harper a vehicle for making some keen observation: farmers like Luke run multi-million-dollar businesses – they aren’t idiots. Wives like Karen are responsible for managing big business finances as well as households and families. Girls like Ellie are living difficult and confronting lives in a town where everyone knows what’s going on. Then there are the events that had driven Falk and his father from the town. Harper must walk her characters along the tightrope of supporting some of the community and acknowledging the wrongs of others. It’s these observations, these glimpses into the highs and lows of rural existence that give The Dry such a strong sense of reality, of life lived in a warts and all environment.
Falk’s background as a financial investigator in the Australian Federal Police is also a clever way of avoiding the easy conclusion – that the drought and financial pressures have driven Hadler to take desperate measures. Right from the beginning of the novel it’s Falk and another blow-in, Sergeant Greg Raco, who see something more.
While The Dry is a strong character study, it also creates a sense of place and environment that is palpable. The devastating effects of drought are woven into the story as part of the action, character motivation and reaction, making the starkness of the situations being faced feel brutally confrontational and carrying a clever and twisting plot forward, driving the narrative. The drought and the heat are part of what makes people crack and say things they may not normally, opening up the tensions, creating doubt about themselves and each other.
And at the end of it all, the explanation is even more devastating as a result.
The Dry is exactly what you want from Australian crime fiction. It’s taking a real-life scenario – where extremes of climate and desperation push people to their limits – and shedding light on communities searching for a way forward, always aware that there are mistakes in the past that will come back to bite. And it does that with enormous sympathy, realism, understanding and respect.
Jane Harper The Dry Pan Macmillan 2016 PB 352pp $32.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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