Kieran and Mia have brought baby daughter Audrey back to their small Tasmanian hometown for the first time after years of living in Sydney, but it’s hardly a joyous homecoming. Kieran’s father Brian is suffering from dementia and the couple is back to help Verity, Kieran’s mom, pack up the house and find a nursing home for his dad. And even though old friends like Ash McDonald and Olivia Birch have welcomed them back, there’s an undercurrent among the other townspeople that hints at something unpleasant that happened a dozen years ago and led to Kieran leaving in the first place. When a young woman (a visitor to the resort town) is found dead on the beach, the old resentments come bubbling to the surface, threatening to swamp Kieran and his family in tragedies both past and present.
The Survivors (2021) is the latest suspense novel by Jane Harper. I was drawn into the setting and the story as soon as I picked it up, and it kept me turning pages until I finished the book with a sigh less than 24 hours later. As she did previously in her first novel, The Dry (2016) and The Lost Man (2019), Harper creates a sense of place so finely drawn it fairly jumps off the page. I could feel the sea breeze in my hair and taste the salty air blowing in off the beach. The streets of Evelyn Bay, virtually empty after the close of the summer tourist season, echoed with dusty quiet in my mind.
Harper also has a knack for doling out details about what happened in the past that gives the reader just enough information each time to keep them interested instead of frustrated at not knowing exactly what’s going on. It’s not easy to juggle that sort of dual timeline, but Harper keeps her eye on both balls as she tosses first one and then the other into the air. Most of the characters are well drawn, especially Kieran, from whose viewpoint we see most of the events in the novel. And the depiction of Brian’s increasing loss of memory and its effects on his family is painful to read in its honesty and compassion.
Jane Harper has been on my must-read list of authors since I first read The Dry in 2018. Whenever I enthusiastically recommend her to friends I describe her as “the Australian Tana French,” which is probably unfair to both authors. What I mean is both women write books that transcend their genre roots and deserve to take their place among the finest literary fiction. If you haven’t yet read anything by Jane Harper, The Survivors, as a standalone novel, would be a fine place to start.