THE SURVIVORS By Jane Harper (Macmillan, 2020)
In one of the most eagerly awaited Australian crime novels of 2020, Jane Harper, bestselling author of The Dry, shifts her focus away from Australia’s sun-bleached interior to the rough, windswept coast of Tasmania in The Survivors.
Kieran Elliott returns to the small coastal community of Evelyn Bay with his young family to visit his mother and ailing father. His father’s dementia is getting worse and his mother is preparing to move them out of the family home. It is a somewhat reluctant return for Kieran who is still haunted by the boating tragedy that claimed the life of his brother and another man twelve years ago and divided the town. It was also the day when a young girl went missing during the horrific storm, never to be seen again. Kieran has gradually been coming to terms with those events, and his role in them, but he finds that old wounds are re-opened when a body is found on the beach and the town is once more divided.
The Survivors opens a little slowly as Jane carefully puts in place the various strands of her story and gradually reveals the intricacies of the tragedy that claimed three lives years before. The rich cast of characters are nicely fleshed out and the relationships, both past and present, are unhurriedly established. Once the key elements are in place, the story moves at a brisker pace as the murder mystery in the present and the truth about what happened in the past jointly unfold and the tension steadily rises. There are several twists and surprises, and a few well placed red herrings, and the book moves to a powerful conclusion that I did not predict.
Interestingly, the story is mainly told through the eyes of Kieran, who is largely a bystander to the events in the present. Unlike the usual lead character in a mystery novel, he is not investigating the crime and has no pressing stake in identifying the killer. His personal knowledge of the events twelve years ago, however, is crucial to understanding the present and Jane smoothly interweaves these recollections into the flow of Kieran’s narration. Although, he grew up in Evelyn Bay, his long absence from the town also means that he brings an informed outsider’s view to it, which works well as a narrative device.
As usual with Jane Harper’s novels, the locations are well described and you can smell the salt air and feel the danger when she is describing the treacherous sea caves that feature so strongly in the story. The depiction of the seaside town of Evelyn Bay and its reliance on tourism also rings true and Jane nicely captures the touristy cheesiness of the town in this description of the local fish and chip shop:
“One whole side of the weatherboard building was still adorned by an outline of a giant crayfish, fashioned entirely from sun-bleached shells glued to the wall. A painted sign at the entrance read: In here for fish from there, with an uneven arrow pointing to the ocean that lay a stone’s throw from the outdoor dining deck.
She also takes her usual sharp-eyed look at the intricacies of small town communities and writes convincingly of the enduring toll of guilt and tragedy on people.
The pacing may be slower than in her previous novels, but I still thoroughly enjoyed The Survivors and keenly kept reading all the way to the powerful, emotional ending.
Four stars out of five!
The Survivors is released in Australia on 22 September 2020. It seems to also be available on Kindle in the United Kingdom from 22 September and in hard copy from 21 January 2021. It will be released in the USA on
2 February 2021
Thanks to Pan Macmillan and the Canberra Weekly for an advance copy of the book for review.