The Dry (2016) by Jane Harper

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“ … very involved with the book – it’s a page-turner, with a plot that develops quickly and deftly.”“ … it’s good to read such a fine Australian novel.”Dear Reader, the above are not extracts from book reviews but my own notes made as I plunged into this very readable book. At one level it’s a cracking murder mystery and detective story but it is also a work that captures something of the essence of rural community life in Australia.Four teenagers in a Victorian farming community find friendship and romance together. When the novel begins, two of them have died in tragic circumstances – Ellie Deacon in an apparent suicide twenty years earlier and Luke Hadler just a week before in one of those farming family murder/suicide events that happen all too often in this country. One of the four, Aaron Falk and his father had fled the small town of Kiewarra under a cloud soon after Ellie’s death by drowning. Now an AFP officer, he is back for the first time to attend his mate’s funeral. His brief return is greeted with suspicion and outright hostility by those who hold him to have been involved somehow in Ellie’s death. Others, not convinced that Luke was capable of killing his own family, urge him to stay longer and investigate. The community has been devastated by drought. The deep river in which Ellie died is dry dust. Tensions are at breaking point; many wonder if the Hadler family tragedy is only the first. Aaron Falk’s return is difficult, even dangerous. He reflects on his current unsatisfying city life:[he] spent a lot of his days under fluorescent office lights, but at least his livelihood didn’t hang by a thread on the whim of a weather pattern. At least he wasn’t driven to such fear and despair by the blank skies that there was even a chance the wrong end of a gun might look like the right answer.Jane Harper’s writing is sure and uncompromising in this her first novel; her character assessments are shrewd and piercing, as in this very minor character sketch:A woman stepped out, her squashy figure backlit by the television glow. Dull chestnut hair was scraped back in a limp ponytail and her hips spilled over the top of her waistband. Her face was the purple-red of a woman whose drinking was crossing the line from social to serious. She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, staring at Falk in cold-eyed silence. ‘Help you, mate?’‘The Dry’ is a masterful narrative peopled with complex and authentic characters. The unfolding of the twin mysteries, recent and distant, are managed with a confidence and touch that is engrossing to the end. Having said that, I did find myself suspending disbelief with one part of the ending, just a tad over-dramatic. And – this has also been said of the splendid recent film version with Eric Bana in the lead role – at times the dialogue doesn’t quite ring true of rural Australia. I tut-tutted when Gretchen (the other surviving member of the four) said, “I’m on the school board.” In Victoria there is no such thing; we have school councils. I’ve been on a couple myself. However, these are minor quibbles with what is a major work by an outstanding Australian writer.