I don’t recall ever reading a finer prologue than the first three pages of Jane Harper’s third novel, The Lost Man. It introduces us to the man of the title (or one of them – there’s another candidate, and we’ll get to him) and depicts, with agonizing specificity that turns the brief passage into a test of endurance for reader and subject alike, the slow death of a man under the Queensland sun, inside the perimeter of the inhospitable Outback. (The 4-4-4 rule of human survival – four minutes without air, four days without water, four weeks without food – does not apply here, as Harper proves in ruthless close-up.)
The prologue sets the scene for what follows, creating a puzzle that official investigators and the family of the dead man will painstakingly strive to solve, but if there were no novel, it would work just as well as a standalone short story, a devastating snapshot of the flimsiness of human life against the blank cruelty of the climate.
The body is discovered quickly, and identified as that of 40-year-old Cameron Bright. He perished next to the locally famous grave of an unknown stockman on the vast cattle ranch, Burley Downs, owned by his family. Cameron had worked the land with his younger brother, Bub; some years earlier, Nathan, who at 42 is the eldest of the three sons of Liz and the late Carl Bright, sold off his share and took up what turned out to be an unproductive property nearby, where he lives alone.
The poorness of the land, which he was persuaded to buy by his then father-in-law, was only one of the factors that doomed his marriage to Jacqui, who now lives hundreds of kilometres away with their teenage son Xander, the focus of an excruciating custody battle. Nathan’s estrangement from his ex-wife is just one drop in the pool of distance in which he swims; he became a community pariah after an event 10 years ago, and today only a handful of people can be relied upon to speak to him.
It is Nathan, this solitary man, who emerges as the titular figure. Whatever he’s done, he is the person trusted to retrieve the body of his brother and to guide the Bright family through the aftermath of sudden, unexplained death. The question of what happened to Cameron will find a shocking, singularly unnatural, answer as Harper, whose exemplary earlier mysteries The Dry and Force of Nature confirmed her as a preeminent new voice in the genre, deepens her exploration of the darkness within.
It is that delicate but insistent probing of the human condition in (physically and emotionally) hostile terrain that sets Harper apart from her peers and elevates The Lost Man to something far greater than the linear dead-body tale it first purports to be. The secrets held within the Bright family are at once commonplace and grotesque, and where one son learns the error of his father’s ways, the other merely learns, and re-enacts what should have been lost to clan history.
In telling the story of the Brights through the life and death of one member, Harper offers both a repudiation and a redemption of violence. When the living co-exist beneath a sky that can kill them in a blink, best they don’t turn on one another.
As the Coast book reviewer, Stephanie Jones shares her thoughts each week on the latest releases.
Stephanie has a BA (Hons) in history and English literature, and a background in journalism, magazine publishing, public relations and corporate and consumer communications.
Stephanie is a contributor to the New Zealand Book Council’s ‘Talking Books’ podcast series (listen here), and a member of the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel. She can be found on Twitter @ParsingThePage.