Author: Jane Harper
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia
Copy: Courtesy of Publisher
Last year Jane Harper released her riveting debut suspense novel The Dry, which we read for book club and I loved. Since reading The Dry I have been eagerly awaiting the next book, which finally released last week.
A hugely popular debut novel sets extremely high sophomore story expectations, expecting that authors are just going to get better. This can leave that sophomore release falling a little flat but that is definitely not the case with Force of Nature. Harper’s sophomore novel is as strong as her debut and has helped cement her in my list of must watch Australian authors.
Force of Nature is the second book about Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk, and I hope not the last. It is a book that references events of The Dry a couple of times throughout but I don’t think it’s something that will affect enjoyment if you haven’t read the first book. I have read lots of books in between so my memory of the first book isn’t clear, but I know I loved it, so it wasn’t detrimental to my enjoyment of this one.
The Prologue places us somewhere in the middle of the story, we need to go back to discover how events unfolded before following through to the resolution.
Harper creates captivating suspense that leaves you wandering down overgrown and barely there trails of information trying to piece together the clues and work out what happened to Alice.
Two groups of staff from Bailey/Tennants boutique accountancy firm head to the Giralang Ranges for an outdoor adventure team building exercise; three days following the trails in the ranges after only a single afternoon of training for one member of each team. Two teams of five people head into the ranges; five men and five women. Each team has one member of the Bailey family, namesakes of the business.
The men’s team play quite a small part in the story. We know they are also navigating the trails but after they all set off you don’t hear much from them, we know they made it back to the meeting point on time. One of the men on the team is company chief executive Daniel Bailey, and on the women’s team is chairwoman Jill Bailey.
Five women set out on the path at Mirror Falls with a map and a compass and all they need to get them through the next three days. They are carrying the first nights food but the food for the following days is already at the campsites for the second and third nights. They are due back at the rendezvous point Sunday lunchtime to meet up with the men and bus it back to Melbourne. Sunday comes and the end of the trail is watched, to no avail. Hours late the women emerge from the bush, far from the end of the trail, battered and bloody and missing one of their group.
The search begins in earnest and ramps up rapidly, those conditions aren’t great if you’re unprepared and the weather’s been stormy. It isn’t long before a full scale search is in progress but no-one really expects the Federal Police to be involved.
The missing woman is Alice Russell, who has been working closely with Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper. They are very interested in the progress of the search because she is an integral part of their current investigation, centring on the company she works for.
The story is that of Alice’s disappearance; how, where and why the biggest questions. It takes the entire story but we eventually get those answers. But I am still left with questions; some things I didn’t get answered. Parts of the setup that were vital in the way it came together were then never revisited to let us know how they came to be. It’s a relatively minor thing but even now, days after finishing the book, I’m trying to work out how some things fit into the timeline.
In the beginning it all seems pretty straightforward, place all the pieces together and the picture comes clear. Except that’s not really the way Harper writes, and it doesn’t make for gripping reading when it’s that predictable. So to add avenues we need to throw in historical murders in the Ranges, and the possibility of a teen social media sex scandal.
All of the elements came together seamlessly to stitch a story that had me gripped, and left me completely unsure of what theories I wanted to put my money on. I’m not sure whether there was any factual basis to the historical murders but I was born and bred in the Eastern states so I remember the Belanglo State Forest murders, and that’s what this left me thinking of.
Overall Harper has written a captivating tale across a fluid timeline, that spans a short period of time but switches between the time on the trail and what’s happening in terms of the search when Alice doesn’t make it back.
In alternating chapters we follow the progress, ill-fated though it may be, of the women on their trek as the hike that is meant to help them work together and build resilience does more to make the tensions stronger, and the search efforts and information gathering of the police at the base station.
The writing is tight, the suspense is taut, the relationships are slippery to focus and the characters are complex. The story is one that captivated start to finish and left me wanting to see more of FPA Aaron Falk.
Force of Nature is book #42 for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2017.