“Are they supposed to be happy or sad? I mean, is it a celebration of the people who made it, or a memorial to the ones who didn’t?”
One thing that Jane Harper can do extraordinarily well is to create a sense of place in her writing: her settings, whether they be the oppressive heat of a small farming town in The Dry or the wildness of the bush in Force of Nature, are vibrant and intense. In The Survivors we have a much more familiar setting: Evelyn Bay is a small seaside town in Tasmania, surviving from tourism and its own troubled relationship with the ocean which is ever present. And it is the ocean perhaps more than the town that shines – it is so strongly a part of this novel and the live of Evelyn Bay that it almost feels like a character in its own right, like the settings of the the Aaron Falk novels.
And like The Dry, Harper sets the novel off with a return of the prodigal son, in this case Kieran Elliot who had been brought up in Evelyn Bay along with his brother, and who is returning having forged a life away from it, along with his wife Mia and their three-month old daughter Audrey. Like Aaron Falk, Kieran had left under something of a cloud in the aftermath of an horrendous storm and boating accident which had claimed the life of his older brother; also like Falk, Kieran is returning from a sense of duty, helping his mother pack up the house so that his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s can be put into a nursing home.
As we might expect from Harper, there are those in Evelyn Bay who find it hard to accept Kieran’s return and hold grudges even after ten years but, in the main, Harper depicts a pleasant and sociable community focussed around the local bar and old friends.
Until Bronte, one of the waitresses at the bar, is found brutally murdered on the beach.
Unlike the Falk books, which are the only other books by Harper that I have read, Kieran is no detective and the pace of the novel is different. It is not driven by the imperative of the investigation, nor does it create the tension of the cat-and-mouse chase which we often enjoy in detective fiction. Instead, Kieran is a bystander and an outsider: he neither witnesses the crime nor discovers the body (although he comes upon it very quickly) nor is he a suspect. There is more langour – is that the right word? I certainly do not mean it in a derogatory way – in this novel than a typical detective novel. It is not, centrally, about the crime but about the effect of that crime on the community. The closing in of the locals against the tourists (”Why are you harassing the locals, Chris, mate?… we all know whoever did this has been back on the mainland for days”) and the pervading sense of fear and insecurity that slowly permeates the town as women avoid the beach and unlit paths and being out alone is one natural response; as is the more vicious rumour mongering and inwards turning suspicion that percolates through the town’s online forum.
And as we often have with Harper, the central mystery of Bronte’s death is not the only one that the community is dealing with. There are layers of mystery here circling back to – and echoing beyond – the tragedy a decade before in which Kieran’s brother died. And once one layer seems to be resolved another layer emerges. We meet Olivia in the opening pages, Bronte’s housemate, but her sister Gabby’s death during the same storm is not even alluded to until half way through the novel and, whilst that could have been disconcerting and a disruption, somehow in Harper’s hands it managed to feel natural – there are some topics that we avoid, aren’t there?
Emotionally, this is a quietly intense read – possibly more so than in the Falk novels, and perhaps as a consequence of its not being a procedural. Kieran is still dealing with the loss of his beloved brother and his sense of guilt about his death, as well as his inevitable inability to live up to the image of his brother gilded by the tragedy. The circumstances of that storm and the terrible consequences for the whole community are developed and played out in flashbacks – Harper does like her dual narrative points of view! And layered on top of this as well are the challenges posed by his father’s illness. There were some moments of real beauty and also of real tension between Kieran and his father.
The Survivors is slightly less intense and less of a thriller than The Dry, and I don’t think that this hurts the book in the least; instead it shifts it to a more contemplative and more literary place – a place where the memory of an even earlier tragedy commemorated by the image of
the three life-size iron figures stood guard. The Survivors. Side by side, they gazed outwards unflinching against the elements, their sculpted faces turned forever to where the Mary Minerva lay sunk beneath the waves.
is particularly poignant.
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 384
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Date: 21st January 2021
Available: Amazon, Little, Brown Book Group
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