Force of Nature, a suspense-filled novel by international best-selling Australian author Jane Harper, kept me in its grip from start to finish. The author skilfully maintains high levels of conflict, tension and fear through the story.
An odd assortment of colleagues reluctantly takes part in a challenging team exercise. They set off to hike in winter in the fictional Giralang Ranges, east of Melbourne. The men arrive at the appointed rendezvous on time, but the separate group of five women lose their way.
Wet from incessant rain, cold, hungry and thirsty, they stumble about in the bush for several days. The atmosphere of suspense builds. We learn that a serial killer had murdered three women in the ranges. Another woman went missing around the same time. Her body has not been found. The man’s son is said to be unstable and rumour says he also knows the ranges well.
The women have one mobile phone between them, but they cannot get a signal to call for help. A major ground and helicopter search fails to find them. Interpersonal tensions flare between members of the group.
Eventually, four of the hikers find their way to the last campsite. But Alice Russell, the owner of the phone, is not with them. In the prologue to the story, we read, ‘Alice had a mean streak so sharp it could cut you.’
Whatever happened to Alice?
What is the Force of Nature of the title?
As the novel is set in the rugged bush landscape of one of Australia’s many extensive natural parks, the land itself could be the overriding force of nature alluded to in the title. Since the arrival of white settlers, stories of being lost in the bush abound in Australian myth and literature. The accounts can send fear into the hearts of those of us who have camped in the bush, to say nothing of being lost on a remote track. Jane Harper manages to capture the essence of the bush and the fear that it generates.
Perhaps the force of nature might be the inclement weather experienced by the hikers. Hiking, the cold and rain winter make uncomfortable companions.
Yet another force of nature in this novel could be the way in which people who do not like or at least respect each other can descend to a primitive level when extremely stressed. Conflict, usually concealed under the guise of good manners can, under duress, become a traumatic force of nature.
Plot and characters
The novel is both plot- and character-driven, which makes for a complex and enthralling piece of writing.
The story moves fast, from one conflict to the next, and one plot twist to another in rapid succession, keeping the reader’s attention. Clues and red herrings subtly lead towards resolution and towards wrong deductions.
Jane Harper reveals the back-stories and relationships between the characters skilfully. For the most part, this comes about through conversations and asides. The reader’s empathy is invoked for one major character after another.
Empathy becomes stronger, also, because the author has layered the chapters, first telling the story of the lost women alternating with a chapter about the search and the searchers.
Each of the women, in turn, tells a part of the story. The technique of varying points of view within one novel demands great craftsmanship. Otherwise, the reader can be left with a sense of ‘head-hopping’, rather than feeling the story is unified.
I read The Dry, Jane Harper’s first book, with enjoyment and admiration. I was happy to find Federal Agent Aaron Faulk, of the Australian Federal Police, with another major role in Force of Nature. The novels stand alone.