"The Dry" by Jane Harper
Luke Hadler turns a gun on his wife and child, then himself. The farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily. If one of their own broke under the strain then.......
Set in a small community in Australia, during a drought that is destroying the land, the farmers' livelihoods, marriages, friendships and lives. Aaron Falk, a Federal Police Officer who left Kiewarra twenty years ago, has returned to investigate the death of his childhood friend.
As Falks digs deeper into the mystery surrounding the murder of the Hadler family, he finds himself haunted by ghosts from the past and struggles to come to terms with the rejection he suffered from this community all those years ago, a rejection that which made him leave for a new life in Melbourne. Then the past becomes entangled with the present and the secret Falk thought he had buried long ago is brought back to the surface.
I read a few reviews of this book on Twitter and Facebook and decided it was my kind of story. I requested it immediately even though my TBR pile is in danger of toppling over and my diary for January is already rammed with books waiting to be reviewed...... But I *had* to have this book.
I am so glad I was lucky enough to get an ARC just before publication date and squeeze it in to my reading schedule as the reviews are right - it really is a bit of special book.
The opening is hugely atmospheric. Harper sets a scene of heat, death and decay through images of insects and nature which capture the affects of the drought on the landscape. Then she uses this imagery to reveal the scene of the murdered Hadler family. Although clearly this is a harrowing picture laid out in front of us, the sense of stillness, quietness and isolation makes the realisation of what we see before us even more hard hitting. The atmosphere of desperation is eerily conveyed through the weather and the landscape - a technique used throughout the whole novel with the drought becoming as much of a character as the protagonists. Harper's ability to capture the acrid dryness is impressive and I could almost feel the suffocating heat catching in my throat despite the fact it is actually snowing outside my window.
Harper's prose is full of evocative descriptions and effective dialogue. I thought these sentences at the beginning of the prologue captured the essence of the character's suffering and sense of hopelessness.
"'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."
And the chilling last line of the prologue:
"So nothing reacted when deep inside the house, the baby started crying."
This idea of nothing reacting also hints at the numbness beginning to trickle through the community as behaviours and attitudes become so changed by the long term effects of the drought. It is an interesting exploration of a community under pressure and I liked that the pressure was a completely different kind from the usual ones found in crime thrillers.
Despite the oppressiveness of the heat, Harper's language blows through the pages like a fresh wind. Her writing is full of original imagery; she presents characters and situations through sentences that lack any cliches or well worn paths often trodden in this genre. This is a book that makes you pause, look up from the page and let the sentence sink in as you absorb and enjoy the picture or character created in front of you.
"How short was the road from the decision to this moment? The question ached like a bruise."
We are never allowed to forget about the dry and Harper's references are subtle and unforced yet permeate through the passages like the dusty footprints on the ground that follow everyone everywhere in this time of drought.
"a stern sign hanging from an egg timer next to the shower head had ordered him to keep ablutions to three minutes."
And another example of her writing style is when the Hadler family funeral takes place, we are reminded that the 13 month old Charlotte escaped death:
"No name spelled out in flowers for her"
But her future would not be a happy one:
"Not many places to hide for a kid destined to grow up with the label 'lone survivor'."
Again this also captures the underlying sense of a small community in an isolated countryside. In fact, this novel is as much an exploration of the dynamics and workings of an insular community as an investigation of murder. I thought the setting almost felt post apocalyptic at times which was really effective as this implies a society where the rules are different and what becomes acceptable has changed - what can happen to a town which is suffering extreme circumstances.
"It's so bad Aaron. So bad. You can feel it. We're all walking around like zombies. Not sure what to do, what to say. Watching each other. trying to work out who'll be next to snap."
What is also interesting is the reaction to Luke's death. Although horrific, there is also a "parochial pity" as he is now "out of it, isn't he? While the rest of us are stuck here to rot, he's got no more worrying about crops or missed payments to the next rainfall," which conveys the pressure the people are under. I thought this was a really interesting thing to explore and again, reinforced my feeling that this is a very different kind of crime story.
The main character is Aaron Falk. The story is told from mainly from his point of view as he refuses to believe his best friend Luke would kill his own family and refuses to accept that Luke could be a murderer or would commit suicide. He is convinced that someone else is responsible, that there is a murderer at large. Joining forces with the local police, Falk teams up with Raco to investigate the crime. Immediately there are hints that Luke and Falk have a hidden secret and something has happened to them in the past when they were teenagers. Harper's interjection of a short italicised phrase begins to infiltrate the pages and create a further atmosphere of unease and suspense.
"Luke lied. You lied."
Falk, Luke, Gretchen and Ellie were "teenage tight, where you believe your friends are soul mates and the bonds will last forever" and now, with both Luke dead and Ellie having died twenty years ago, it is only Gretchen and Falk left. But what happened between them? How did Ellie die and how is her death linked to the death of Luke? What does Falk know and what is he trying to hide? Why did he leave and what was he trying to escape?
I was drawn to Falk. Initially - and for almost two thirds of the book - he is a little aloof and reserved. He feels like a bit of a loner, a man who is secretive and insular. He is a great observer and a man troubled by something which is stopping him from moving on with his life emotionally. He is excellent at his job and relates well to people but for some reason he is disliked and some people are not pleased to see him return. He is well crafted, intriguing and Harper's ability to create a male protagonist with such authenticity and complexity is impressive.
I also like Raco, the local Police Officier. He felt more punchy; unafraid to ask the questions, cross the lines and is sharp, shrewd and objective enough to interpret more of what is going on around him. I enjoyed the developing the relationship between the two men and found the dynamics between them, their working and professional interaction, engaging. Raco often brings a little bit of pace and lightness to the storyline. He is clever and insightful and able to push Aaron in a way Aaron is restricted because of his ghosts from the past. He is also able to push Aaron to look for things that always been there but he's chosen not to see. I really enjoyed the increasing dramatic tension when Aaron had to relive conversations, look again at photos and rethink the things he thought he knew.
This novel does begin slowly - perhaps in keeping with the setting and temperature of Kiewarra - but the last third is absolutely compelling and it suddenly becomes a real page turner. I was completely gripped and could not be interrupted as I read on to the end, watching the revelations, realisations, twists, turns and last minute rug pulling moments leap from the page.
I enjoyed the way the story resolved itself - there is quite a lot of exposition and explanation but it is not superfluous; it is measured, considered and carefully executed. Just like the rest of Harper's writing.
To me, this novel seems to cross over a few genres. Yes, it is a murder story, yes there is mystery and crime, yes it is a police procedural novel but it is also a novel about friendship, about secrets, about hidden pasts. It is a novel about small communities, coming of age and the environment. It is not a page turner but it is intriguing. It is not a quick one sitting read but it is compelling and gripping. I really enjoyed it and actually, the last third of the book completely transformed my opinion. For the most part I thought it was a very well written crime story but by the end I thought it was a clever, multilayered story with a dramatic and climatic denouement that was hugely satisfying and left me staring blankly ahead beyond the pages as the final few revelations sank in.
"The Dry" might be a bit different from your usual crime thriller read, but I would recommend you read it. I think Harper offers something a little different and I really admired her writing. There is no way this reads like a debut and I can't wait for the next book from her!
"The Dry" by Jane Harper was published on 12th January 2017 by Little, Brown.
Thanks to the publishers Little, Brown and netgalley for the last minute approval and thanks also to all the bloggers who convinced me to read this book with their enticing reviews!
For more recommendations and reviews you can follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)