Jane’s story revolves around several generations of a farming family. The main characters are the three adult sons, but their parents and children are also an important part of the novel. It is concerned with the death of one of the sons, and the attempt to understand what was happening for each of the characters, to provide some understanding of their reaction to the recent events, and move towards clarity about the circumstances of the death.
This novel is set out in the desert country around Cooper Pedy. I have not yet travelled to that area, but I have no doubt that having read this book, I would recognize it instantly. The colours, the dust, the rocks and the heat-the ferocious sun, the craggy rocky outcrops, the vast open spaces stretching to the horizon, the odd oasis of green surrounding a homestead. Not only can I see in my mind the look of the landscape, I can feel the dust and the grit, the weight of the sun as it waxes towards the middle of the day, and wanes towards dusk.
Despite being a murder mystery set in unforgiving landscape, this is a gentle book. It begins with family relationships between father and son, and between brothers, that are warm and supportive. The story unfolds to show cracks in these relationships and back stories that reveal the long term consequences of life in the outback including divorce, isolation, depression, difficulties in communication, and competition amongst siblings for farming rights and relationship opportunities. These issues are revealed slowly, unpacked in a very creative way to expose the more human aspects of life in difficult circumstances, as well as the darker side that often accompanies these issues.
Jane Harper’s story involves characters who are not what they appear at first impression, or even when they have become reasonably well known. The judgments made of these people and their relationships from the outside, are often based on incomplete information and assumptions, and do not do them justice. Jane shows that these judgments can be very harsh and have far reaching consequences.
Jane explores the difficulties of a fragile relationship between father and son following a bitter separation, and shows great insight into the perspectives of both parent and child in this setting. As understanding of this relationship develops, it changes and evolves into a more robust and supportive one. A very nice example of how even in very bitter separations, there can be hope for a more meaningful connection in the future.
It is the unpacking of the family dynamics that was the highlight for me. Gaining real insights into how cruel a small community can be, how difficult it can be to cope with isolation and depression when your nearest neighbour is hours away, and the constant challenge of responding to the harsh Australian climate. The characters were not always likeable, but they seemed real and I could imagine meeting them in an outback Australian pub!
The strength of this novel, and one of the main reasons that I felt I wanted to encourage others to read it, came from Jane’s treatment of family violence. This aspect of the story was always hovering beyond the horizon, and evolved slowly but steadily with such force that it took me by surprise. The insights reflect a good understanding of these issues, particularly the intergenerational aspects, and lead me to reread parts that were particularly powerful! A great illustration that even where this issue has been identified, it can be extremely difficult to avoid, and almost impossible to escape from!.
I found this a very compelling story. The description of the surroundings, the development of the characters, and the unfolding of the twists and turns in the story. This is a book that is definitely well worth reading. I would give it 4 ½ stars.