Wednesday, February 20, 2019
The Lost Man by Jane Harper: Reading Room Review
The Lost Man is book #3 for Jane Harper, and I always look to the third book to determine what sort of staying power an author has. Of course, having been overwhelmingly impressed with Harper's first two novels, The Dry and Force of Nature, I never really had any doubts that this author was the real deal, one of the most remarkable voices to come along in the past few years. But, if anyone had any lingering thoughts of will it last, The Lost Man should solidly put those thoughts to rest. Jane Harper has harnessed the power and vastness of the Australian outback into a story of a family struggling against the constant hardships of man versus nature and man vs. man. The small dot on a large map that encompasses the best and the worst of humankind, the story of the Bright family of Queensland, Australia could be a tragedy right out of Shakespeare or an epic saga of a generational farming family trying to hold on against the elements and their own personal shortcomings. Of course, what makes this story so unique and so persistently threatening to its characters is the isolation of the setting, the nearest neighbors being at least three hours away. Self-sufficiency and independent living take on a whole new meaning when there is no one else around to help.
The immediate situation with which the Bright family has to deal is the death of middle son Cameron Bright, the golden child of the family and favored brother of three. All brothers are grown men, with Nathan the oldest at 42. The patriarch of the family, Clay Bright, has been dead for many years, and Cameron was in control of the wide-reaching ranch, Nathan preferring to have his own part and home, and the youngest, Bub, working for Cameron. But, Nathan and Bub find themselves staring at a blue tarp covering their brother Cameron in the scorching sun on a part of of land where he wasn't supposed to be, oddly enough at the site of a landmark headstone marking a man's death from long ago. Death had not come easy to this brother whom Nathan hadn't seen in over six months. No shade, no water, and no way out in the unforgiving sun of an Outback December was a fear they all lived with in this sparsely uninhabited land, and they were careful to take precautions against such an ending. Cameron's vehicle would have been filled with water, food, and an emergency radio, but his vehicle was no where to be seen. When it is found, the Land Cruiser is thus stocked, but it is also too far away to have been of any use to Cameron as the burning sun sucked all the water and life out of him.
The story is told as it revolves around Nathan Bright's life, an especially isolated life in this isolated land. Divorced for ten years, living alone, and shunned by the only town within a reasonable distance, Nathan's only light in his darkness is his teenage son Xander, who is visiting for Christmas holiday from Brisbane, where he resides with his mother. Nathan's story and that of his family's is told in pieces that the author slowly releases out to our hungry anticipation, filling in the back story of what brought them to this crushing point. The Bright family has been living with lies for so long that it has taken the death of one of the brothers to shake the foundation of their house of cards. That Cameron Bright died of dehydration is no mystery, but that he would commit suicide in this brutal manner is beyond comprehension, and Nathan's suspicions about it begin to grow in intensity. But, if Cameron didn't commit this strange kind of suicide, then what did happen to him and why. Nathan learns that Cameron had been unusually troubled for the past few weeks before his death, and although he and his brother hadn't been particularly close over the past ten years, Nathan is determined to uncover what forces were in motion that resulted in the death of a healthy forty-year-old man. With it being almost Christmas, Nathan and his son Xander stay at the family homestead, where Nathan's mother Liz, his brother Bub, Cameron's wife Ilse and two daughters, and long-time employee Harry reside. A couple of backpacker workers were ensconced on the homestead, too, Kate and Simon, who prove to be valuable sources of information concerning Cameron's secrets. I wasn't completely gobsmacked by the final revelations about Cameron and his demise, but that wasn't necessary to this brilliantly played out story. The "who" of the whodunit question was important, but the why is the amazing journey Jane Harper takes us on to get there.
I stayed up until 5 a.m. to finish this book. Great reading demands commitment, and I was only too happy to read through to the end at that hour. I've read several comments on various sites that The Lost Man is that reader's favorite Jane Harper book yet. I think about how much I dearly loved The Dry and Forces of Nature, and I wonder if I diminish them any be agreeing that The Lost Man is my favorite thus far, too. I don't think so. Each book is an exceptional read that propels the reader on and on until the last gasping thrill, but The Lost Man grabs me on an emotional level that is hard to explain. The characters were a family whom I got emotionally invested in, rooting for their deliverance and hoping for their happiness. It's a story that deals with how people chose to isolate themselves as well as how they are isolated beyond their control, and it's easy to see a bit or ourselves in both of those situations. I don't want to relegate the vast setting to a metaphor, but life can sometimes feel as if we are in the middle of a space unreachable by others, so identifying with the Australian Outback doesn't seem too far a bridge at all.