The Dry (2016) by Jane Harper

May be an image of book and food

“ … 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.

What Is to Be Done (2020) by Barry Jones

Australian National Living Treasure, ex quiz champion, leader of the campaign to abolish the death penalty, polymath and our longest-serving Science minister (phew!) Barry Jones’ recent book consciously echoes Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s 1902 treatise, What Is To Be Done? – but there is no question mark; Jones is not asking a question but telling us what must be done. His 1982 book Sleepers, Wake! won international acclaim and was known to have influenced the thinking of Deng Xiaoping among others, but Australia and much of the world continues to snooze.

Sub-titled ‘Political Engagement and Saving the Planet’ (and speaking as a former Labor party stalwart), Jones proposes that just as we face a climate crisis poised to spiral out of control both major political parties are failing us miserably. Aware of the grave danger of climate change since 1967 and believing that our continent’s vulnerability should have propelled Australia to be a world leader on the issue, he comments, “Australia’s response has been feeble, confused and, at times, corrupt”. One answer could be for concerned citizens to join the major parties in large numbers so as to force reform of party platforms. Another could be to form a new party; Jones and Malcolm Fraser seriously discussed doing this before Fraser’s death in 2015 and had agreed on a strong progressive agenda. However, since early in the 20th century Australians have conservatively voted for one of the two big parties and only strayed elsewhere in relatively small numbers.

Barry Jones is indeed a great Australian: an idealist, a dreamer and a formidable intellect, but also with a former teacher’s tendency to over-explain. He is remembered for his contribution to then Labor leader Kim Beazley’s ‘Knowledge Nation’ policy – a complex diagram of circled phrases mocked by Coalition politicians as ‘Noodle Nation’ and hence not taken as seriously as it deserved. Linda Jaivin notes of parts of this book, “If any male reader … is curious what it feels like for women to have things mansplained to them, I commend these sections.”

The Labor party Barry Jones joined as a young man consisted of mostly men, as he ruefully admits, but men who were “actual workers … passionate readers, had strong convictions, and knew how to debate a powerful case. Some had been jailed for their political/industrial activity.”                            He continues:                                                                                                                                                                             I regularly receive requests for advice from young people who tell me, ‘I’m thinking of going into politics.’ I ask, ‘Which party?’ Typically, they respond, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.’ Then I ask, ‘So, you’re passionate about an issue?’ Mostly, I receive a quizzical look and the response, ‘Oh, should I be?’

No wonder we are so badly served by our politicians when for the most part they have no commitment other than to a generous salary and retirement plan, no passion about issues or interest in ideas – let alone a conscience – and imagine that staying ‘on-message’ is an appropriate substitute for debate.