‘The Lost Man’ by Jane Harper

The Lost Man

Fiction – hardcover; Little, Brown; 384 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Having read Jane Harper’s previous two novels — The Dry and Force of Nature — both of which I loved, I was super excited to hear there was a third in the offing and managed to secure myself a review copy via NetGalley.

The Lost Man is not part of the Aaron Falk police series so it can be read as a standalone (though, to be fair, they can all be read as standalones, but I would always recommend starting with The Dry first).

It’s set in the Far North Queensland outback and revolves around a trio of brothers, one of whom dies in mysterious circumstances. Essentially it’s a murder mystery, but it’s not a police procedural. Instead, the main “sleuth” — for want of a better word — is Nathan, the older brother, who tries to piece together how his younger brother, Cameron, came to be found on top of the Stockman’s Grave on the border of both their vast cattle properties. Cameron had died from dehydration, but why had he abandoned his vehicle in the heat of the day and why had he visited the grave?

This sounds like an intriguing puzzle to solve, right? I thought it was to begin with, but there’s something about this book that just didn’t work for me. It’s not the mystery, nor the plotting, which is very good and moves along at a reasonable clip. It’s clear the family — three generations all living under the one roof — has a lot of closely kept secrets ready to be exposed and this gives the novel a readerly hook. It’s the flat, clichéd writing — all tell and no show — that ruined it for me.

Stereotypes and clichés

The back stories of the two older brothers are nicely fleshed out, but as characters they are two-dimensional. Subsidiary characters, such as Liz, the widowed matriarch of the family, and Xander, Nathan’s teenage son, are even more thinly drawn.

It doesn’t help that the setting and the livelihoods being described here don’t feel authentic (it’s all so painfully white and there’s not a single mention of indigenous culture or people). And there’s far too much over reliance on worn out tropes — of men not talking about their feelings, of the outback being hot and inhospitable, of women being trapped in abusive domestic situations.

There’s also a tedious romantic theme running throughout — of the exotic European woman who marries the wrong Australian brother — that also lends the story a Mills and Boon flavour.

I know this probably sounds harsh, but I was almost ready to abandon the book about a third of the way in, but kept reading in the hope it might get better. It does pick up slightly towards the end when the pieces of the mystery — all of which I guessed pretty early on — began to fall into place.

Going by other reviews I’ve seen, I’m seriously out of step with common opinion, making me wonder if I even read the same novel.

If you’re looking for a brilliant evocation of outback life, of what it’s like to work in a remote location, struggling with drought and threats of repossession, hunt out Stephen Orr’s brilliant and much overlooked The Hands instead. If you just want an intriguing mystery set in a kind of half-imagined outback, then read this one.

The Lost Man was published in Australia in late October, but won’t be available in the UK until next February 2019 (although you can purchase the Kindle edition if you are that way inclined).

This is my 19th book for #AWW2018 — way more than the 10 that I planned to read.

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11 thoughts on “‘The Lost Man’ by Jane Harper

    • The Dry is absolutely wonderful! But I think The Lost Man read too much like a soap opera. It actually felt more like a first novel than her first novel, if that makes sense.

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  1. Bill from The Australian Legend thought that The Dry lacked authenticity about rural life in Australia. Have you read his review? It’s very interesting.

    So what you write here doesn’t surprise me. I’ve read Cleo’s review and she loved it. I guess Jane Harper can fool Europeans better than Australians. 🙂

    And I totally agree about The Hands. I need to check if it’s available in French now because I’d love to give it as a Christmas present.

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    • Ah yes, I remember Bill’s review… I didn’t entirely agree with him as I grew up in rural Australia and thought it was a convincing portrayal of small town life. But this one is set on a properly remote cattle station and while the detail is essentially correct (keeping in touch by satellite, keeping diaries of movement etc) it just lacked a feel for the land, I didn’t get a sense of the colours and the smells etc.

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  2. This is interesting. I enjoyed The Dry as I thought the setting was evocative and well written. Shame this didn’t work for you. I wasn’t overlt taken with Normal People so I sympathise with feeling out of step with other readers!

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    • I really expected to love it but it just felt a bit blah… not that my opinion matters in the slightest as it’s already a bestseller in Oz. Speaking of Normal People, that’s on my bedside table… be interesting to see which side of the fence I fall on.

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  3. I’m not sure I need to say any more! Writers who rely on Australian stereotypes annoy me intensely. And to write an ‘outback’ novel that perpetuates the myth of terra nullius in the C21st is unforgivable.

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    • It is a crime / suspense novel and not a literary one, so I can’t really expect it to be a masterpiece but the trouble is she set the bar quite high with her first novel which brought a literary bent to a police procedural and I guess I just expected more of the same with this one…Disappointing doesn’t even come close.

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  4. Delighted to see The Hands being recommended here, such a great book and why Orr has never been seriously considered for the MF is a complete mystery to me.

    I take the point about the absence of indigenous people: there’s been a fair bit in the Twittersphere and elsewhere as well about the perils of representing Indigenous people in contemporary fiction. Opinions range from the emphatic (and sometimes angry) Just Don’t Do It Leave it to Indigenous People to Write Their Own Stories, to Do It Only If You have Indigenous Input (aka sensitivity readers) to Go Ahead But Do Your Research First. For authors who want to churn out a novel a year, the process may well look too exhausting and difficult (and everyone knows you can’t do Indigenous consultation of any kind in a couple of hours over a coffee with just one person). So the path of least resistance appears to mean leaving Indigenous characters out.

    It all seems a bit depressing, and Bill’s right about the effect possibly being to perpetuate Terra Nullius, but I think this is a transitional phase in Australian writing. Writers like Harper who are leaving Indigenous people out will (hopefully) be reading books that include them and at the same as they are learning about Indigenous history, culture and people from those books, they will also come to see that their own stories lack authenticity…

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    • Yes… to be honest I’m not sure how I feel about this… I don’t think every novel has to have an indigenous character in it, but I would expect there to be some reference to the original owners of the land or a bit more about country if only to acknowledge that the land has a much richer history than its association with white settlers alone. But I think you’re right about the speed with which some writers churn out their novels and I suspect Harper was on a three-book deal and this one was dashed out pretty quickly. The plot’s good but everything else felt a bit too thinly sketched out.

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