British author Jane Harper brings a potent outsider’s eye once again to the uncanniness of the Australian bush in the follow-up to her powerful debut, outback thriller The Dry, published last January. The speed of the publication of Force of Nature is a mark of the impact of that award-garlanded first book.
Written via a three-month online course, the story of a federal police officer, Aaron Falk, returning to the remote town he grew up in to investigate a childhood friend’s death won a slew of prizes and has been optioned by the same Hollywood production team behind Gone Girl and Big Little Lies.
A journalist on the Melbourne Herald Sun, Harper was born in Manchester, brought up in the UK and Australia, and moved to Australia in the mid-nineties to work for a small paper outside Melbourne.
Her experiences reporting on the droughts that hit local communities at the time informed her evocative descriptions of the arid landscapes of The Dry.
In Force of Nature, Harper turns her focus away from Australia’s scorched plains to its primeval rainforests as Agent Falk returns to fathom a corporate retreat gone disastrously wrong.
Five women from a Melbourne accountancy firm that Falk, a financial crimes officer, is investigating for money-laundering, get lost in the fictional Giralang mountain range. Four of them make it back, but Falk’s whistleblower doesn’t, and a search of the huge nature reserve begins.
Alternate chapters detail the breakdown of the expedition as the alien surroundings take their toll and murky resentments between the women surface.
Interestingly, Alice Russell, Falk’s insider in the company, emerges less as a victim than a bully, and the spectre of a Wolf Creek-esque serial killer hovers over her disappearance.
Like The Dry, this is a deftly assembled and cleverly paced novel, the characters skilfully and nimbly drawn. The rain-pummelled bushland, “where trees grew thick and dense on land that was reluctant to let anything escape”, is once again a powerful adversary.
Considering the expectations on Harper’s shoulders after the success of The Dry, and the rapid turnaround, Force of Nature confirms Harper as an exciting new talent.
But it has to be said that this is not as literary a novel as The Dry, the writing less lyrical and the characterisation not quite as rich. A large part of the pleasure of Harper’s debut was her delving into Falk’s childhood and back-story, his relationship to the backwater town of Kiewarra and its inhabitants. In Force of Nature we get some insight into his relationship with his father and his previous relationships but not much more.
These, however, are minor quibbles. It’s stirring to see a writer racing out of the traps with such confidence and storytelling flair.