The Blurb On The Back:
He had started to remove his clothes as logic had deserted him, and his skin was cracked. Whatever had been going through Cameron’s mind when he was alive, he didn’t look peaceful in death.
Two brothers meet at the remote border of their vast cattle properties under the relenting sun of the outback. In an isolated part of Australia, they are each other’s nearest neighbours, their homes hours apart.
They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old that no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron. The family’s quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish.
Something had been troubling Cameron. Did he choose to walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects …
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s a week before Christmas in Queensland, Australia.
42-year-old Nathan Bright runs a failing cattle farm deep in the Australian Outback. Divorced and shunned by the locals in the nearest small town of Balamara for committing one of the cardinal sins of the Outback, he spends most of his time on his own except for when his ex-wife, Jacqui, allows their 16-year-old son, Xander, to stay with him.
One of Nathan’s nearest neighbours is Burley Downs, the ranch he grew up on with his younger brothers, Cameron and Bub, his parents and Harry, a grizzled ranch hand who’s been with the Brights for as long as Nathan can remember. Nathan, Cameron and Bub’s dad Carl died in a car accident when Bub was just a teenager. Although Nathan and Bub have shares in the family ranch, it’s majority owned and run by Cameron, who lives there with Bub, Harry, his mum Liz, his wife Ilse and their two daughters Sophie and Lo and two itinerant English workers, Katy and Simon.
When Cameron is found dead from exposure and heat exhaustion at a place known locally as the stockman’s grave, no one can understand what he was doing there. He was supposed to be helping Bub to repair a mast on Lehmann’s Hill, 200km away but worse, his body is 8km away from his car and he was at the stockman’s grave without any shade or water. Having lived in the region all his life, Cameron knew how dangerous the Queensland heat could be and why you should never leave your vehicle.
Despite the strange circumstances, local policeman, Sergeant Glenn McKenna, doesn’t think it’s suspicious enough to justify getting an investigation team down to take a look and is minded to put it down as suicide or misadventure. This is especially after he hears that Cameron had been behaving a little strangely in the weeks before his death – Liz, Ilse, Bub and Harry agree that he was distracted and had been letting things slide around the ranch.
Nathan and Xander move into Burley Downs ahead of Cameron’s funeral, to offer support to their family. It’s been over a year since Nathan was last there and he finds it awkward to reconnect with his family, but especially Ilse, who he’d had a brief romance with before she met and married Cameron. But the longer he stays at his old family home, the more he learns about his brother and the more he wonders if Cameron was murdered, and if someone had a good reason to kill him …
Jane Harper’s standalone crime novel makes the most of both the oppressive nature of the Australian Outback and the loneliness of life out there to create a slow burn reveal of bad behaviour and family secrets. I particularly liked the slow reveal of Nathan and Cameron’s backstory and characters, which worked very well and although the ending has a bit of a pat feel to it, I would definitely check out Harper’s other books.
I picked this up because I’d read Jane Harper’s debut novel, THE DRY, and been impressed with it. She has a real gift for describing the landscape of the Australian Outback that combines the beauty with the parched harshness. This is a standalone novel and not part of Harper’s AARON FALK SERIES.
I liked the fact that this is set in a very remote part of Australia, where residences can be hundreds of kilometres from each other and the nearest town has a population of only 60 or so people. This mix of distance and the harsh conditions mean that people are particularly dependent on each other, so when you finally learn what it was that Nathan did that turned the entire town against him, you can understand their anger and disgust even as you empathise with Nathan’s reasons and regret for what he did. Harper does a really good job of slowly revealing his loneliness and isolation and the impact that it has had on his mental state and also showing how his family and people within the town (notably Glenn and local medic Steve Fitzgerald) are worried about him.
The reveal of Nathan’s marital breakdown also explains the awkward relationship he has with Xander, who lives in the city now and has no desire to swap it for Outback life (not that Nathan would want it to). I did wish that there had been a bit more from Xander in the book because he’s shown as being quite perceptive, bringing an outsider’s perspective to Burley Downs and its inhabitants, and I think that more could have been made of that in helping Nathan to realise what’s been going on.
This is very much a book about secrets. Harper does a really good job of slowly drawing these out, both the secrets in Nathan’s own life and those that slowly come out about Cameron. Again, Harper has a real feel for small town life and the way that residents are minded to back each other up but at the same time don’t go looking for trouble so when events emerge from Cameron’s youth (events that Nathan was aware of), you can understand why people took the position that they did. However, for me the reveal of what was happening in the present was much more chilling because of the way it highlights the vulnerability that comes precisely from that remote, small town life.
If I had a complaint, then it’s that the ending and reveal and especially the consequences of the reveal are a trifle pat. In part this does fit with the themes in the book and Nathan’s character, i.e. he doesn’t ask the questions to which he doesn’t want the answers, but there are emotional consequences to the final reveal and no suggestion within the book as to how Nathan is going to handle that. In addition, the suggestion that the town is changing its attitude towards Nathan is a bit too convenient and there isn’t enough grounding there for me to buy into it. I don’t think it would have taken much to convince me – just some kind of recognition that given what happened to Cameron, the town was willing to move on and treat Nathan as having served his penance – but it isn’t there.
This aside, I found this to be a genuinely engrossing read that kept me turning the pages because I wanted to know what had happened. Harper has a great feel for the location and the people who live there and she knows how to craft a clever mystery and thread through the relevant backstory and plot lines. I meant to check out more of her work after reading THE DRY and this book has just ensured that I will make more of an effort going forward.