When Australian authors make the long trek to Scotland, it seems rude not to go see them. This summer the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Bloody Scotland are hosting a number of Aussie visitors. All being well, I shall attend a few events and read some cracking novels. But it was Glasgow’s Aye Write! that scored the first hit of the summer season, with a visit from Jane Harper to discuss her latest bestseller, The Lost Man.
I haven’t read Harper’s The Dry or its sequel Force of Nature, but I have heard much about them. With The Lost Man being a standalone, I thought I’d start there. Well, once started, soon ended. I could not put it down!
The novel opens in the interior of Western Australia. Miles from anywhere, stands the Stockman’s Grave. Desperately seeking shelter in its shadow is a man, succumbing to the blistering heat of the sun. His fate is sealed. No-one will chance by and rescue him.
Once his vehicle is found, it is soon established that he is Cameron Bright, a cattle farmer, a born and bred outbacker. But what was he doing there? Why would he abandon his vehicle and walk out to the Stockman’s Grave without taking any water? Finding no indications of foul play, the local police can only assume that he chose this end.
His elder brother, Nathan, is not convinced. Where Nathan is running a failing cattle farm, Cameron’s was successful. Where Nathan is badly in debt, Cameron was comfortable. Where Nathan is a divorced loner, ostracised from society, and struggling to remain in contact with his only son, Cameron is happily married with two young children. Why would Cameron wish to die?
When Cameron’s body is returned to the homestead for burial, tensions within his extended family unit begin to surface. His mother is falling apart with grief; the younger brother, Bub, begins to show animosity and resentment; Cameron’s wife moves closer to Nathan (therein lies a story). All is not well within the family bubble, and things have been festering for years.
As Harper explained, there are no circuit-breakers in communities such as these. When your nearest neighbour is 2.5 hours away, you can’t just pop down the pub to get away for a while.
Her objective in writing The Lost Man was to convey the realities of life in the Outback: the sheer size, the risks, the survival strategies, and relationships which are close-knit through circumstance rather than desire. Quite a challenge for an urban, coastal dweller like herself. (She lives in Melbourne.) Her research involved reconnaissance in the Outback. Her guide, a man who had once been the sole police officer in the area for 10 years. What did it teach her? That she had completely underestimated the size and scale and danger of it all. She told the amusing anecdote that as they were driving down a long, straight road, her guide said there’s a left turn coming up. 45 minutes later, it did!
The lessons she learned are put to good use in the everyday detail of the outbacker’s lives: the amounts of water to be stocked in the boot of vehicles, the importance of logging your movements before setting off, the necessity of keeping your home radio switched on at all times, the cost of home repairs, (when the engineer has to drive 600 miles to get to you.) I felt I had been there.
Harper’s control of the psychological drama at the heart of the Bright household is just as assured; meticulous planning delivering perfect pace. More than once I got an inkling of what had happened just a page or so before the reveal, which is just how I like it. With regard to Aussi-isms, she explained she walks a middle line. She wants her dialogue to be authentic, but also understandable to her international audience. Her prose, too, is finely detailed, concisely capturing the essence of things.
For example, when describing the Brights hugging each other: The movement had the rusty quality of underuse.
And let’s not forget the multi-layered puzzle with a number of candidates vying for the honour of being the eponymous lost man.
Consensus from the chair of the event, Neil Broadfoot, and confirmed Harper fans in the audience is that this is her best novel yet. My evaluation: A scorcher in more ways than one!