I'm going to start this review in an odd way, by declaring that I didn't like Jane Harper's second book FORCE OF NATURE as much as I had been expecting to. Initially I thought this was because it read like an idea that Aaron Falk had been hammered into it later on, weakening the plot, motivations and sense of place to the point where they seemed to sort of float along to an inevitable ending. Having now finished Harper's third (non-Falk book) THE LOST MAN, the reasons are clearer.
Harper is at her best when she's writing about people at the absolute and utter edge and THE LOST MAN has edges everywhere. It might look like a novel about the death of the middle Bright brother Cameron, but it's more a story about people on the edge, existences eked out in harsh circumstances, constantly with an eye to the extremes - weather / distance / isolation; past mistakes that continue to haunt; family secrets and struggles; and questioning and probing and complicated lives.
The Bright family are custodians of a lot of secrets, and they deal with the fallout of a lot of mistakes. Three brothers - Nathan, Cameron and Bub are the product of their family circumstances, the isolation, the tensions from the past even before Cameron's body is found at the foot of the stockman's grave, a landmark that's old and small, but casts a long and dark shadow.
Oldest brother Nathan is separated from his wife, the daughter of a local station owner, and he misses his son Xander more than he can say. Nathan lives on his own property, abutting the family station, but Xander's return to spend Christmas is overshadowed by the death of Cameron. Cameron, his wife and daughters, live on the family property with the boy's mother, and the youngest brother Bub. Their father died many years ago in a car accident, but much like the stockman's grave, his presence looms over everything. There are secrets here - in the legend of the stockman, in the memory of the father, in the way Nathan has withdrawn from family and the local community, and in the death of Cameron that hang dark and heavy.
Harper has built a wonderful sense of place, and life into THE LOST MAN. From the self-sufficiency and stockpiling of a property so far from everywhere, to the planning that's involved behind every event and move, to the heat, and the isolation, which isn't as isolated as a casual observer might think. Strangers are noticed in these parts, strange goings on are noticed, cars seen where you wouldn't think they could be seen, events remembered, things noted. Even in a place so remote, the idea that Cameron would be found dead from exposure, so far from his car, a car that Nathan can't understand was missed by everyone, is odd, wrong, out of kilter.
As is the reason Cameron would be out there in the first place - he knew the rules / the warnings / how to survive in the bush. Something's wrong - and everybody seems to know just a little bit - their mother / Cameron's wife / his daughters / his brother Bub. Nathan might have withdrawn from the family a while ago but his spider sense is telling him something's wrong. But what?
And so it is that we return to Harper at her best when she's exploring edges. The edginess of the place, of the people and their existence is backed up by the edginess of this family, balanced so acutely it hurts to read about them. These people are real, this situation is real and in THE LOST MAN Harper has created another astounding work that perfectly evokes a complicated, heart-breaking, all-too-believable family tragedy.