I’ve just finished reading what I reckon will be one of my top books of the year, The Dry by Jane Harper. Within minutes of starting this book I knew I was in safe hands, and right to the very end I couldn’t put this book down. It’s the kind of book that makes you miss your train stop; it’s an engrossing and very satisfying read.
The story opens with Aaron Falk, who happens to be a Federal Police investigator, attending a funeral of his childhood best friend in Kiewarra, a small town in rural Victoria. Immediately we’re introduced to odd characters, small town tensions, intrigue and an apparent suicide/ double murder. Yessir, those cards are stacked up well right from the start, which means that the unfolding story is well structured and evenly paced – the layers of the central mystery, as well as the characters, are gradually and expertly revealed. Even when the novel flicks back and forth between the current deaths and an unsolved murder from twenty years ago, the narrative remains cohesive and engaging.
In addition to the cracking story line, I loved this book’s descriptions of the heat. For those who’ve never experienced the Australian sun, at its worst it’s searing, inescapable, and debilitating; it can be impossible to function in. Harper captures this brilliantly: ‘Falk parked his sedan next to a ute… and killed the engine. The air conditioner rattled into silence and the interior began to warm immediately’. Kiewarra is in severe drought. ‘The weather pattern had a name, the pronunciation of which was never quite settled. El Nino‘. Throughout the narrative, we’re continually reminded just how harsh these conditions are (‘A heavy bead of sweat stung the corner of his eye and he wiped at it impatiently) as well as the precariousness of Kiewarra’s existence:
The drought had left the flies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra levelled their rifles at skinny livestock. No rain meant no feed. And no feed made for difficult decisions, as the tiny town shimmered under day after day of burning blue sky.
This book captures living in a rural town in Australia as brilliantly as Denise Mina depicts Glasgow and Kate Tempest evokes London, and I don’t make those comparisons lightly. For a debut novelist, I find that truly impressive.
The mysteries at the centre of The Dry aren’t fully resolved until literally the last page, making it a guaranteed page turner. And on every page up to that point of final denouement, there are observations and characterisations not just about Australia, but about human fallibility, the inescapable past and atonement that will resonate beyond these borders.
The Dry is a scorcher. Be wary of reading in on public transport though – you could well miss your stop.