I bring you the review of the newest book by an author I’ve become a big fan of. Just a word of warning: the book isn’t available everywhere and in all the formats yet, but should be coming out in the next week or so everywhere (if there are no delays).
The Survivors: A Novel by Jane Harper
Coming home dredges up deeply buried secrets in The Survivors, a thrilling mystery by New York Times bestselling author Jane Harper
Kieran Elliott’s life changed forever on the day a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences.
The guilt that still haunts him resurfaces during a visit with his young family to the small coastal community he once called home.
Kieran’s parents are struggling in a town where fortunes are forged by the sea. Between them all is his absent brother, Finn.
When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away…
About the author:
Jane Harper is the author of the international bestsellers The Dry, Force of Nature and The Lost Man. Her books are published in more than 40 territories worldwide, and The Dry is being made into a major film starring Eric Bana. Jane has won numerous top awards including the CWA Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel, the British Book Awards Crime and Thriller Book of the Year, the Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year and the Australian Indie Awards Book of the Year. Jane worked as a print journalist for thirteen years both in Australia and the UK and now lives in Melbourne.
I thank NetGalley and Little, Brown UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
Although I discovered Jane Harper’s talent in her second novel, Force of Nature, I have been hooked ever since, and I have read all of her books till now (you can check my review of her third novel, The Lost Man, here). I have no hesitation in recommending her books to any readers who appreciate great writing, complex characters, a good plot, and a talent for bringing to life the landscape and the setting of her stories (all located in Australia, so far) and turning them into an integral part of the novel. In The Survivors, Harper takes us to Tasmania, and although the specific location is fictional, I felt as if I was there, looking into the ocean and contemplating the sculpture of the Survivors slowly disappearing under the tide.
The Survivors of the title make reference to a sculpture symbolising, perhaps, the survivors of an ancient wreck off the coast of the little town where the story is set, Evelyn Bay, a place where everybody knows everybody’s name and stories (that is, apart from that of the outsiders who visit during the touristic season), and where a tragedy took place about a decade ago. It seems as if the inhabitants had moved on from it, from the big storm that caused the deaths of two young men and during which a young girl also disappeared, but like the sculpture of the survivors that disappears under the water but always resurfaces again, some things refuse to remain buried (or submerged). When the body of a young woman —an art student who had come to the town looking for inspiration— appears murdered on the beach, memories are stirred and questions are asked anew.
The novel is a mystery, although like all of Harper’s novels, it is not a frantically paced one, and her choice of narrator (the story is told in the third person from the point of view of Kieran, a young man who barely survived the storm, and who’s been trying to deal with his guilt over his older brother’s death ever since) is particularly clever. Kieran is an insider, in so long as he was born in Evelyn Bay and knows (indeed was one of the main participants in the drama) far too well what happened during the big storm. His family was one of the worst affected by it, and they are still trying to get over his brother’s loss, even if his mother insists in putting up a front. (I liked Verity. She is a survivor, and has to be strong for everybody, always coping with everything, and now also having to look after her husband, Brian, who is suffering from dementia, and she never complains). But he has been living in Sidney, has had a child with Mia (another insider/outsider), and has kept away from the place for a long time, so he can also see things from a different perspective, from a certain distance.
Kieran has come back with Mia and their young baby daughter, Audrey (she behaves like a real baby, and I loved the fact that the author thanks her own baby and a niece for providing her ready material for the character) to help her mother pack the house, as she has decided that her husband needs to go into a nursing home, and she will move to an apartment close by. Kieran and Mia take the chance to reconnect with old friends, Ash, Sean, and Olivia, and although the story is told mostly chronologically, Kieran’s mind goes back to the past, to the time when he met Ash, to their youth, to his life as a teenager in Evelyn Bay, and, eventually, to the events of the day that have stayed with him and changed his life and that of many others. I don’t want to go into the plot in too much detail, but as I said before, there is a murder, and when a female detective from the city comes to head the investigation, a lot of unanswered questions resurface again.
I’ve mentioned some of the characters, and they are all interesting, although we only get to see them from Kieran’s point of view (although sometimes we can gather some information from their interaction with the main character, or from the comments made by others, which sometimes make us question his opinion and version of events). Kieran is not an unreliable narrator in the standard sense, although he has somewhat blurry memories of some of the events that happened on the day of the storm and immediately after. He was quite traumatised by the events, and Harper creates a realistic psychological portrayal of the character, somebody trying to cope with his guilty feelings and holding onto the hope provided by his partner and the baby. He struggles to follow the clues and at times he refuses to look into things too deeply, although eventually he comes to a shocking realisation. I felt there could have been more time dedicated to his current life and his relationship with Mia (we get a flashback of their meeting and coming together in Sidney, but I wasn’t sure it created a clear enough picture of his recent life, compared to the power of the depiction of the past), although I think the focus on past events, not only his, but also that of other characters (his mother, who still keeps a shrine for her dead son; Ash, who resents any changes made to his grandmother’s house; Olivia’s mother, who can’t let go of her younger daughter’s death; Sean, who has taken up the role of his brother in the business and with his nephew; even the chief of police, who’ll rather leave the force than move to a new team elsewhere) symbolises the fact that they are all stuck in the past; that they’ve never truly moved on, like the Survivors.
There are twists and turns, and red herrings as well; there is a famous author who has come to live there and who seems to have a lot of questions of his own, and the detective in charge seems to know more than she is letting on, but this is not a mystery for people who merely enjoy the pursuit of the clues and the piecing together of an answer. The book’s rhythm is meandering, and a bit like the tide, it ebbs and flows, and there are too many other threads going on to make this a satisfying novel for people who prefer a more formulaic take on the classic mystery and are after a quick and uncomplicated read. The writing style is precious, as usual, and I loved the sense of place and the ragged beauty of the location, the small town (that feels very real, with its fierce loyalty mixed with pettiness, gossip and resentments), and the cliffs and caves. The thrill of the risk, the cold of the water, the dangers hiding in the darkest corners make it very compelling, but it is not a fast page-turner. On the other hand, those who try to avoid graphic violence and gore can be reassured there isn’t much here. Everything is explained at the end, and although I can’t say I knew who the guilty party was for certain, I was fairly suspicious by then and wasn’t surprised by the revelation. I enjoyed some aspects of the resolution more than others, but overall I think it works, at least in my opinion.
In summary, this is another great Jane Harper novel. It is not my favourite (although I’m not sure that I have “one” favourite), but I am sure the setting and many of the characters and events will stay with me for a long time. There are sad moments, tragic events, realistic depictions of guilt, bereavement, grief, anger, life with a dementia sufferer, and reflections on the nature of memory, friendship, and small-town living. I recommend it to anybody who likes mysteries that go beyond the formula, to Harper’s fans, and also to anybody who hasn’t read her yet, because you are missing a treat.
Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher, and the author for her novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to share with anybody who might be interested, keep safe, and keep smiling (from behind the mask).