Fiction – Kindle edition; Macmillan Australia; 384 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Jane Harper’s latest novel The Survivors switches focus from the Queensland outback of her previous novel to the island state of Tasmania. Here, on the windswept coast of a small local community (the fictional Evelyn Bay) a young woman in town for the summer is murdered, her body found washed up on the beach in the early hours of the morning.
The crime is a reminder of a previous tragedy in which a 14-year-old girl went missing on the night of a big storm 12 years earlier. That same night, two local men, Finn and Toby, also died when their boat overturned in stormy seas.
The timing of the murder is unfortunate because Finn’s brother Kieran is back in town. Kieran blames himself for his elder brother’s death all those years ago and the occurrence of yet another tragedy triggers painful memories for him. He’s arrived in Evelyn Bay from Sydney — with his long-term girlfriend and young baby daughter in tow — to help his mother pack up the family home so she can move her husband, who has early-onset dementia, into a nursing home in Hobart.
The Survivors is essentially a murder mystery focussed on two women who lost their lives more than a decade apart. It’s mainly centred on Kieran and his family, and a small cohort of childhood friends, now adults, who have remained living in the town. It’s a slow burner, the kind of story that unfolds slowly but surely, and is much about guilt, redemption and family loyalty, as it is about trying to solve a murder.
What I liked
The number of potential suspects
The Survivors isn’t a traditional police procedural or even a typical crime novel. It’s essentially a murder mystery that is “solved” by a small cast of characters who piece together clues discovered by the police and their own “investigation” (I use the term loosely). There are plenty of would-be culprits — the mainland genre author who has purchased the big house in town, Kieran’s father who wanders the local area at strange times of the night, the young kitchen hand who drove the victim home from work, and so on. Every one of them could, potentially, be the murderer — and the fun is trying to guess who it might be. The ending, I have to say, is satisfactory — and not the person I suspected at all.
In previous novels, Harper has faithfully captured a diversity of Australian settings, from a small rural community battling the ongoing effects of drought in The Dry to an outback cattle station that has to generate its own electricity it is so remote in The Lost Man.
In The Survivors, she captures what it is like to live in a small coastal community, some 900-strong, the kind of place that is super-busy with tourists in the summer and quiet and closed-in on itself when the season is over. It’s also the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business (or thinks they do). She nails the gossip, innuendo and rumours that can fester when the facts aren’t truly known, and shows how this can spread like wildfire, especially via community online pages. She also nails what it is like to grow up in those places and to never truly escape them because even if you move away and only return on holiday, the locals think they “know” you and don’t think twice about casting judgement.
The dementia aspect
The depiction of dementia is handled sensitively and clearly shows the burdens placed on the primary caregiver — in this case, Kieran’s 64-year-old mother — and the family members who have to adjust to a new reality in which their loved one barely recognises them.
What I didn’t like
The dead woman trope
The Survivors is yet another crime novel where a dead woman is the central plot point. Harper doesn’t sensationalise the murder and makes reference to the fact that women must negotiate the world in a different way to men (never walking alone down dark streets, for example), but it still remains a story that relies on an old trope that I, personally, am incredibly sick of. It really is time to change the story.
There’s a lot of repetition in this story, a lot of rehashing old ground, a lot of telling us that Kieran, for instance, has been wracked with guilt for more than a decade, and that the storm 12 years ago did more than wreck trees and buildings, it wrecked lives too. Lose half the repetition and this story would be not only leaner, but it would also be stronger, too.
As much as Harper is great at capturing small-town life, it does seem that she only creates places solely populated by white people. While this story does feature a “half-Singaporean” (this is how Kieran describes his girlfriend), everyone else in this story is white. In fact, everyone in this novel feels like a stereotype: the guys are all sporty types, there’s a town beauty, a hard-working put-upon mother, a bumbling male police officer. Do I need to go on?
An entertaining read
No doubt you are going to see loads of reviews of this book in the coming weeks and months. And it will be nominated for awards and top the best-seller lists both here in Australia and the UK, where Harper has a good following.
But this is a fairly average crime novel. By all means, read it for the setting and the fun of guessing who committed the crime, but don’t expect to have your world set on fire. Sometimes, though, that’s enough, especially if you are just looking for a bit of temporary escapism. The Survivors is an entertaining read, no more, no less.
It will be published in the UK in hardcover next January and the USA next February. A Kindle version is already available in the UK.
This is my 18th book for #AWW2020