It’s hard not to be disappointed that the new Jane Harper isn’t set in the outback like The Dry and The Lost Man. She uses the relentless heat and harsh environment of that setting in a way that adds suspense and atmosphere by the bucketload. The Survivors sweeps us off to Tasmania and a coast that has seen scores of shipwrecks with tides that can catch out the unwary. A different environment, but still there’s that sense of danger.
Though for most of the inhabitants of Evelyn Bay it’s just the place they call home and where many make enough of an income from the tourists that visit every summer. It’s the place where Kieran grew up, but he’s made a new life in Sydney with Mia, who knew Kieran at school. The couple have returned with a baby in tow to their childhood home to help Kieran’s parents pack up and move to a nearby town. Kieran’s dad has dementia. The family are still haunted by a tragic event that took the life of Kieran’s brother, Finn, and almost Kieran too, for which he feels survivor’s guilt and more.
But this was a dozen or so years ago, and Kieran has a family, a new life, plenty to be getting on with. Another death, a murder no less, threatens to drag the earlier tragedy back into everyone’s thoughts. For at the same time that Finn and his friend had been attempting to rescue Kieran, Gabby, a fourteen year old girl and Mia’s best friend, disappeared, her backpack washed up days later. When Bronte, a young waitress, is found murdered on the beach, questions arise about why the death of Gabby wasn’t investigated properly all those years ago.
Harper really understands how to work small-town prejudices, the tendency to make connections where there are none, to leap to conclusions. The emotions run high in this book, particularly around Kieran and his family, but also on the appearance of Bronte’s parents. You can’t help but feel a parent’s anguish of losing a child. Then there’s all the guilt Kieran feels for the events that led to the earlier tragedy, particularly as he remembers the laddish behaviour, the sexism and one-upmanship he and his mates indulged in. One can’t help hoping he’s a better man now.
The Survivors is another brilliant read by Jane Harper – it doesn’t really matter where she sets her books, because it’s the characters and the way we connect with them that really drives the plot. And living in a country with treacherous coastlines everywhere you look, it was easy for me to visualise the setting and imagine the danger. And yet…. I just love the buzz of reading about the outback and I’m kind of hoping to return there with the next Jane Harper. Still, this one scores and easy four out of five from me.