The Lost Man by Jane Harper: A review

The Outback region of Australia is a hard land. People who choose to live there must also be hard in order to survive. That is the impression that one gets early on in Jane Harper's book, The Lost Man.

I had not read Harper, an award-winning Australian author, before, so I had no preconceptions and didn't really know what to expect from this book, but I had heard positive comments and decided to read it. Turns out that was a good choice.

The book at its heart is the portrait of a family and of the secrets the family keeps in order to appear "normal" to others. The family is the Brights, mother Liz and her three adult sons, Nathan, Cameron, and Bub. The husband and father of the family has been dead for ten years, killed in an automobile accident that also injured Liz.

Liz, Cameron and his wife Ilse and their two daughters, along with Bub live on the family property in that unforgiving Outback. The old family retainer, Harry, and two seasonal workers also live there. Nathan lives alone, following a divorce, on the adjoining property. He is the nearest neighbor and he is more than three hours away. His ex-wife and teenage son, Xander, live in Brisbane, but at the time we meet the family, it is almost Christmas and Xander is with his father for a visit for the holidays.

Nathan and Bub meet up near the line between the two properties at a place called the Stockman's Grave. It's a place where many years earlier a stockman had been lost in a dust storm and had died. He was buried where he died. Now there is another body on top of his grave. It is the middle son, Cameron; Cam to his family and friends.

There are no signs of violence on the body, other than the violence done by the sun and elements. The body was found in the only shade available in the area - that provided by the stockman's tombstone. Cam's vehicle is found at a great distance from his body, too far to walk in the heat without protection and with no water. It appears that he died of exposure and dehydration and when the autopsy is completed, that is the finding. Cam had been under stress and disturbed for some time prior to his death; the ruling is that he died by suicide.

The protagonist of the novel is Nathan and we see things through his eyes. Nathan who is an outcast in the community because of an unforgivable sin he committed years ago. There are things about his brother's death that don't seem right to him and that continue to niggle at his brain. He suspects that perhaps Cam had some help in dying. But who would want him dead? He was the golden son, apparently well-liked and respected by everyone.

Or was he?

Harper is absolutely masterful in building the tension in this thriller. We know that something doesn't seem quite right but it is hard to put our finger on it. Until slowly, methodically and with great subtlety the author begins to reveal the layers of secrets and lies that the family's lives have been built on. She creates a deeply atmospheric tale with characters and action and a plot that are absolutely believable. There are no superhuman heroics here; these are just ordinary, fallible humans who have made a ton of mistakes in their lives but they are still trying to find that elusive something.  Peace? Happiness? An ability to sleep at night without sleeping pills? Safety from harm? It is not impossible to believe in and identify with the Brights.

In addition to her skill in building the suspense in her novel, I was blown away by Harper's descriptions of the Outback. For example:
At night, when the sky felt even bigger, he could almost imagine it was a million years ago and he was walking on the bottom of the sea. A million years ago when a million natural events still needed to occur, one after the other, to form this land as it lay in front of him now. A place where rivers flooded without rain and seashells fossilised a thousand miles from water and men who left their cars found themselves walking to their deaths.
Maybe it was helped along by all my viewing of those Australian television shows on Acorn and Netflix, but I could envision the red land of the Outback very clearly, even though I've never been there. 

In spite of the bleakness of the place, there are those who love it and who understand it and its people on a visceral level. Nathan is one:
"Sometimes, the space almost seemed to call to Nathan. Like a faint heartbeat, insistent and persuasive... Life out here is hard. We all try to get through the best way we can. But trust me, there's not a single person here who isn't lying to themselves about something."
All those lies - or most of them anyway - are finally revealed in this character-driven tale. And in the end one could see that all the necessary clues to what happened to Cam were there in the narrative, hiding in plain sight so to speak, but I admit I didn't put them together until the writer revealed all in the last few pages. 

Well done, Jane Harper. My hat's off to you.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  



Comments

  1. I have rarely been let down by an Australian author. Glad to know Jane Harper is keeping up the tradition.

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    Replies
    1. I can't say that I've read that many Australians but I am certainly impressed with Harper.

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  2. I saw this book chosen among the best releases of February by Amazon's Editors. You make me want to read it. Harper sure sounds like a powerful writer; the quotes you chose were certainly vivid.

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    Replies
    1. Based on this book, she is indeed a powerful writer. I'm putting her earlier books on my TBR list.

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  3. I actually don't read too many antipodean books... might have to make an exception. Cheers

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