Jane Harper: The Survivors

Jane Harper uses nature to deepen and further her stories more than almost any writer I can think of.  In her first novel, The Dry, the unrelenting heat and drought affecting Australia becomes a part of the story.  In this novel, set in Tasmania, an island off the coast of Australia, the story takes place in a tiny seaside resort town, and the ocean and the caves surrounding the town are as much a character as any of the humans populating the book.

This is a story of long held grief, secrets, and family dysfunction.  Ready to turn away? Not so fast.  Kieran Elliott has brought his partner Mia and his baby daughter Audrey home to help his mother pack.  His father has dementia and he’s moving to a home, while his mother is moving to an apartment near him.  The house is chaotic and full of boxes, and often all Kieran and Mia want to do it escape.

After a reunion with their friends at the local bar the first evening, the peace of the town is shattered when the body of a young woman, a seasonal worker, is discovered on the beach.  For the town, this dredges up memories of a terrible storm a decade ago, one that claimed the lives of three townspeople, including Kieran’s older brother, Finn.

Harper teases out the story of just how Finn lost his life, and the reason that Kieran feels responsible for his brother’s death.  His mother, who says she is “fine” and begins her days with yoga and meditation, still seems like she hasn’t forgiven Kieran.  Kieran himself likes to start his day with a swim in the freezing cold ocean. Both routines are salves, but not a cure, for either Kieran or his mother.

The death of the young girl takes the story inside the lives of all of Kieran’s friends, all of them young when the tragedy occurred, and who are now hitting their 30’s.  While there aren’t a lot of characters in this book, Harper manages to maintain an interesting tension and surprise between all of them that keeps the narrative dynamic.

While there may be other books written about long buried secrets and long held grief, Harper brings to the table a real skill with plot.  She is an original thinker and a brilliant narrative storyteller.  The presence of baby Audrey even adds a note of optimism, one that somehow isn’t corny.  This is a book about dealing with the past, uncovering a killer, and looking forward.  It’s beautifully written and emotionally true.