There is a particularly uplifting feeling that comes when reading the first few chapters of a debut novel and realising it is as good as everyone says it is. The debut novel from Jane Harper (pictured above) welcomes its readers into its tale in exactly this way.
The Dry is a taut murder mystery set amid an elegantly sketched landscape of baked land, bitter rifts and dying dreams. The story explores the violent end of four lives in a regional Victorian community, beset by drought and desperation.
The story is centred around Aaron Falk, a police officer based in Melbourne but formerly a local who was driven out of town decades ago, after the mysterious death of his teenage friend Ellie Deacon. He returns to the town for the funeral of his childhood best friend, Luke Hadler, who is believed to have shot his wife, child and himself.
After Luke’s parents beg him to re-examine the murder, Falk begins to reluctantly explore the case. Harper skillfully plaits his investigation with the ongoing questions about Ellie’s death (both Falk’s and the town’s) with a sweeping depiction of the impact of drought on land and communities.
“When Aaron Falk was eleven, he’d seen Mal Deacon turn his own flock into a staggering, bleeding mess using shearing clippers and a brutal hand. Aaron had felt an ache swell in his chest as he, Luke and Elli had watched one sheep after another brawled to the ground of the Deacons’ shed with a sharp twist and sliced too close to the skin.”
The experience reading the novel is similar. There are sharp twists and notes that sound all too close to home to many families who have lived through hard times. But Harper’s novel is ultimately optimistic about its characters despite their grim circumstances.
Given the anticipation surrounding the novel, it is not surprising The Dry is an accomplished debut. Harper’s book took out the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for unpublished manuscripts in 2015 and went on to spark a bidding war among publishers.
While The Dry does little to push the boundaries of crime fiction, it is still a fresh and rewarding take on the genre. Harper steers her story well, buoyed by carefully captured suspense. This, coupled with Harper’s talented development of its tough and mostly taciturn and compelling characters will surely make this book a success with readers. Harper’s the tight management of the flashback sequences also provides context to the story without losing momentum.
Its readers won’t be surprised to learn the book has already been optioned for a film. Its pacy plot and sparing. but vivid descriptions of a land wracked by drought give the book a cinematic momentum.
The Dry’s ending is perhaps its weakest note. After a well-maintained set of conventions in how the story is told and what kind of information can be shared, its conclusion veers a little too far in to effect a neat ending. Despite this, Harper’s novel heralds the arrival of an exciting new literary voice.
The Dry is published by Pan Macmillan Australia
You can buy the book here