I have found it difficult to uncover Australian fiction authors that really engage me. There seems to have been a movement in the past for Australian literature that rendered everything in the realm of some kind of vague magic realism (hello, Tim Winton and Peter Carey) or an extremely hokey reflection of Australian larrikinism, with all the characters speaking in widely ocker accent that only a small subset of Australians actually speak with. There were exceptions, of course. I enjoy the work of Andrew McGahan, as well as that of Helen Garner. Both of them have such a beautiful feel for language.
And then along came Jane Harper.
Harper so deftly writes her own style that a new term was coined, rural noir. And it’s perfectly fitting. The general outline of one of her novels can go something like this:
A man returns to his hometown. He has not been to his hometown for a long time. The reason for this is he left under a dark cloud of some kind. People blame him for something. While he is in his hometown, making matters tenser, someone dies. The reason for his return is often unrelated to the death that takes place. Secrets come up in the small town he is from, causing people’s emotions to bubble over. People, and events from the past, are not always what they seem to be.
Everpresent in her work, too, is a strong character that surrounds and subsumes the characters in some way: the environment. In her first novel, The Dry, it was the landscape of a small rural town where it hasn’t rained in years. Her follow-up, Force of Nature, took place inside and around a massive, forested park. These two both have the same lead, Federal Police Investigator Aaron Falk, and follow familiar formulae for those who love noir-style detective fiction. Her third novel, The Lost Man, strayed from this, being totally standalone, and was set on a massive cattle property in the Outback. These set-piece landscapes are where the action takes place; some dies in the desert, someone is lost, etc. The environment acts as a character in that it enforces its rigid will upon the characters, and the characters must wander in it, making their way through it, and, if they’re not careful, becoming lost in it forever.
Her most recent novel, The Survivors, is the only one that’s different. The scene is set in a small, seaside town. We are always surrounded by the ocean, although very little action takes place out on or in the water. Instead, we constantly feel surrounded by the immensity of the body of water, always looming and threatening, unpredictable in its power. The town then feels claustrophobic, the characters trapped, because they can never get out from under each other’s feet.
But apart from the well-drawn interpersonal relationships she creates, and the looming sense of largesse created by her ominous landscapes, the key factor here is that her writing is extremely good. She can go from clipped, fast-paced phrases to long descriptions that make you feel isolated, or allow you to see beauty. Either way, her word choice is often poetic in some way, with each word delicately chosen to create the exact sound or feeling desired.
It’s hard to recommend her work enough. This article could have just been two words, “Read her”, but then it would be more of a tweet. Harper’s work reaches out and grabs you, keeping you turning pages as fast as you can, while also giving you these wonderful passages of environmental seclusion that make you feel isolated and alone, standing beside the characters in the sun, the sand, the shadows, or by the ocean.