Just over a month ago Bernadette, a good blogging friend, died in Adelaide, Australia. I never knew Bernadette except in the virtual world of blogging. I never knew her last name was Bean until her passing. She was a fine blogger. No one was more candid in their assessments of books than Bernadette. She had some epic ranks about what she disliked though she was never personal in her thoughts. When she did like a book I took notice. The Dry by Jane Harper was a book she admired. As my personal form of tribute to Bernadette I am putting up her post below and adding my comments on the book and review in brackets.
****Jane Harper’s THE DRY is well named. The drought-ridden, stiffingly-hot town of Kiewarra and its surrounding farmland dominate the book. Remote. A small population; always someone you know nearby which can be a blessing and a curse. And the weather. Always the weather. Refusing, almost with intent, to give even a hint of relief from the heat and dryness and failing to provide the sustenance needed for the farming everyone relies on for their livelihoods. Their lives.
(Australians know heat. While we experience heat in Western Canada it can never compare to Australian heat. What I can relate to such heat is the equivalent pressure from the cold we live with in winter. Cruel winters with -40 sap energy and drive people inside but farmers with livestock must still work outdoors. Unless you have lived in rural country where heat or cold test residents it is hard to understand the stress of prolonged extreme temperatures. Harper vividly explores the consequences of devastating heat and drought.)
The story opens with an all-too imaginable scene of an apparent murder-suicide of a farming family in this inhospitable place. All dead except for baby Charlotte.
First on the scene, the flies swarmed contentedly in the heat as the blood pooled black over tiles and carpet. Outside, washing hung still on the rotary line, bone dry and stiff from the sun. A child’s scooter lay abandoned on the stepping stone path. Just one human heart beat within a kilometer radius of the farm.
(I found the imagery powerful. It is not often I shiver reading a passage but reading of the deaths of the family deeply affected me.)
We are drawn into the story of this place via Aaron Falk. Kiewarra has dominated his life too. He was born there but left as a teenager. Forced out. Literally. After one of his friends had died.
Officially she committed suicide but many locals think Aaron played a role in her death. Only something as dramatic as his best friend Luke Hadler’s funeral brings him back 20 years later, after he’s made a life for himself as a Federal police officer in Melbourne. Well that and a veiled threat.
(It is hard to create a realistic combination of past and present violent death that has a plausible connection. Harper does it very well. I was driven to read how the mysteries could be solved while maintaining the connection.)
Still Aaron plans to be in an out of town pretty quickly but Luke’s parents have other ideas. They don’t believe their son killed his wife, their son and himself. They want Aaron to prove it. Need him to prove it.
(It is clear that Aaron is motivated by guilt but what did he do 20 years ago for which he still feels guilt. Could it be that this honourable man has been a killer despite his protestations?)
A lot of crime novels relay on abnormalities to keep readers’ attention. Serial killers with macabre fantasies. Impossibly convoluted crimes. Implausibly brilliant and/or quirky detectives. THE DRY has none of that. Even that horrendous weather is par for the course in the driest continent on the planet. Yet even without gimmicks and quirks. The story is completely gripping. There is such a palpable sense of the hidden here. Some people’s secrets are innocuous – merely an attempt to wrestle some privacy from life in the fish bowl that small
town living can be. Others are embarrassing. Others are truly awful. Criminal. Harper does a brilliant job of keeping us guessing about which is which right through the novel.
(Bernadette says far better than I can that secrets of the past and of the present are at the core of the book. All are real. What was most impressive to me was Harper’s ability to establish secrets for characters as teenagers and as mature adults 20 years later.)
THE DRY is a very modern tale of Australian life that happens to have a crime or two in it. There’s no criminal mastermind at work. Just ordinary people reacting to what they experience. What they think they know.
(Bernadette aptly comments on the impact of what characters “think they know”. Assumption, whether based on fact or prejudice, is dangerous but is especially prevalent in small towns where residents know family histories for generations.)
Aaron feeling unable to walk away, wanting to know the truth about his old friend Luke. Once and for all. Luke’s parents wanting to feel like they can look people they’ve known all their lives in the eye again. The local policeman wondering if the murder suicide is really staged or does he just want it to be something unusual. Random locals believing the version of that long ago death that has become folklore.
(In some mysteries the lives of “average” people are simplistic, even dull. Harper’s folk are well rounded interesting people with strong, even obsessive, emotions.)
Amidst the powerful backdrop of place that these people’s stories could get swamped but Harper brings them all vividly and realistically to life and makes the reader desperate to know what has brought each of them to the point at which we’ve met them.
(It is a story that has some universal themes but Harper with “powerful backdrop of place”makes it a book that could only happen in rural Australia. I was equally desperate to find out what happened and read well into the night to finish the book.)
It would be more remarkable that this is a debut novel – because it is about as flawless as they come – except that Harper is a long-time journalist. So storytelling is clearly not new for her. Even so, whatever she produces next will have a lot to live up to. I for one can’t wait.
(While Bernadette would likely hate a reference to a blurb, on my paperback copy the author, David Baldacci, echoes Bernadette’s conclusion:
“Every word is near perfect. Read it!”)
My experience of this truly excellent book was further enhanced via a fabulous narration of the audio version by local voice artist Steve Shanahan. His voice changes for different characters are perfect, his cadence and pacing are natural and he seems to be enjoying the story himself (this is not always the case.)
(I lament Bernadette’s passing but am grateful to have known her. I hope there can be some form of remembrance of her concerning Australian crime fiction as her nation has lost a passionate, even fierce advocate, for its crime fiction, especially the works of woman writers. As I look for books to read I will go back to her blog for recommendations for and against books.)