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Author Jane Harper undoubtedly struck gold with The Dry, an outstanding piece of crime fiction that garnered well-deserved praise and also introduced the complex character of federal investigator Aaron Falk. In Force of Nature, Falk’s second outing, Harper delivers another finely crafted book, slower paced perhaps than its predecessor, but one in which the smallness and fallibility of man – or woman – is set against an unforgiving and unyielding landscape.

In contrast to The Dry’s setting of a dying Australian outback town suffering through a relentless drought, Force of Nature’s backdrop is the bone-achingly cold and damp landscape of the bush, where groups of executives go to ‘bond’ on corporate retreats. Two groups, men vs women from the same company, start a team-building hike. The men finish, but it quickly becomes evident that the women are missing. As the search for them begins and panic mounts, the bush spits out four of the five women. No one knows where Alice Russell is and it’s Alice’s disappearance that leads Aaron Falk and his new partner, Carmen, to the Giralang Ranges, somewhere east of Melbourne. Alice is the whistleblower in their latest financial investigation and both of them are questioning whether Alice’s disappearance is related to it. Or did something else happen out in the bush?

To reveal the truth, Harper seamlessly weaves two plot lines together, moving between the current day search for Alice and, through flashbacks, the events leading up to her disappearance. As Alice’s coworkers set out on their walk, the women losing their way and stumbling further and further off track, their true personalities and problems come to the fore. None of the women are particularly likeable and Alice has a ‘mean streak so sharp it could cut you’. As blisters, bumps and hunger, give way to almost drownings, snake bites and fear, the veneer of the modern world is washed away from the women: resentments, jealousies and old grievances surface in a manner reminiscent of Lord of the Flies.

Nature is an important element in Harper’s writing and the landscape a vibrant character in itself. Here, Harper presents the Australian outback as a claustrophobic, menacing entity. The place of nightmares in popular culture psyche, the outback is a hauntingly beautiful but savage landscape in which young women can mysteriously disappear on an outing to a mystic rock (Picnic at Hanging Rock) and crazed murderers seemingly lurk in the bushes. It’s perhaps not so surprising then that Harper should endow the fictional Giralang Ranges with their own serial killer, Martin Kovac, thus adding another layer to the story. While Kovac is dead, his son, rumoured to have colluded with him, is said to roam the area. Is he involved in Alice’s disappearance? Where is Alice?

As Falk and Carmen struggle to reveal the truth, it is apparent that everyone has something to hide. While Falk takes more of a backseat in this book as the dual plot line is revealed, we still have a strong sense of him as a character and an investigator. Pale and scarred, both physically and mentally, as the book opens, he is still recovering from the very personal fall out from the events of The Dry. He is also dealing with his new partner, Carmen, and his misgivings about the investigation and Alice’s involvement in it. Alice seemingly left him a message just before she disappeared, the only audible words of which are ‘hurt her’.

As the story unfurls, it is clear that Alice is a ‘mean girl’, someone who uses manipulation and intimidation to get her own way. Alice has lots of enemies, herself included, and when she appears to have left the group to fend for herself, no one seems that surprised. But the bush is the kind of place that keeps ‘secrets well’ and the landscape seems ‘to shift and alter when unobserved’, so if it has taken Alice for its own, will it give her up?

A sterling follow-up to a stunningly good debut novel, Force of Nature is packed with unlikeable characters who behave in less than admirable ways when civilization is stripped away from them. It’s Deliverance meets Lord of the Flies meets Mean Girls set in the Australian bush. What’s not to like?

Now, where’s the next book?

 

Force of Nature by Jane Harper • Hardback • 8 February 2018 • Little, Brown

 

Acknowledgements: This review is published as part of the Little, Brown book blog tour for the UK publication in February 2018. Many thanks to Grace Vincent and Kim Nyamhondera. Photograph © The Literary Shed 2018.

 

Also of interest:Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry‘; ‘To Kill a Mockingbird (1962 trailer)’; ‘An Alaskan epic – Rosamund Lupton’s The Quality of Silence‘; ‘The beauty of Sara Taylor’s The Shore’; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”’; ‘Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love)‘.

Food to eat while reading: soup love – red lentil, kale and coconut soup – food to keep you warm in the bush …

 

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