Sunday, February 17, 2019

Book Review: "The Lost Man" by Jane Harper

I've read all three of Jane Harper's now. In addition to her exceptional storytelling ability, she is tremendously effective with the imagery she evokes. Reading The Lost Man, as well as The Dry and Force of Nature, I could feel the unrelenting heat of the Australian outback and taste the dry dust, right along with the characters.

The Bright family lives in adjoining cattle ranches in the isolated Australian outback, but they're still more than a three-hour drive away from one another. Brothers Nathan and Bub Bright meet for the first time in quite a while when their middle brother, Cameron, is found dead on a remote part of the family cattle ranch. He was a victim of the brutal heat, but no one understands what made him brave the elements with no protection, especially when he had planned to meet up with Bub that day.

When it becomes clear that there was no reason for Cameron to be outside in the heat for so long, especially when his car was running perfectly and was fully stocked with the supplies one would need in an emergency, the realization surfaces that either Cameron took his own life, or someone forced him into a situation that would end it brutally.

"They lived in a land of extremes in more ways than one. People were either completely fine, or very not. There was little middle ground. And Cam wasn't some tourist. He knew how to handle himself, and that meant he could well have been half an hour up the road, slowed down by the dark and out of range, but snug in his swag, with a cool beer from the fridge in his boot. Or he might not."

Nathan and his teenage son return to the family ranch with Bub. Cameron was managing the ranch, on which lived their mother, his wife, their daughters, a longtime family friend who was more than an employee, and two backpackers Cameron hired. Nathan's relationship with his family has always been a bit distant, as he and his family bear the scars of their violent father. His family worries about Nathan's own stability, as his life has been far from easy, and he lives out in the distance on his ranch by himself.

As Nathan and others try to make sense of Cam's last days, to determine if his behavior everyone describes as "on edge" translated into a suicide attempt, or if something more nefarious is at play, old wounds are reopened, old resentments resurface, and worries about the future cause more tension. It seems as if everyone had something to hide, and Cam's death could have had its roots in a decades-old incident that nearly everyone had forgotten about.

"Life out here is hard. We all try to get through the best way we can. But trust me, there's not a single person here who isn't lying to themselves about something."

Was Cam unsettled enough that he took his own life, or did someone kill him? If someone did kill Cam, who was it—Bub? Ilse, Cam's wife? Uncle Harry, the longtime employee? One of the backpackers, whose background isn't quite what they said it was? Or was it a figure from the past, returning to even the score?

Can the family ever regain some sense of emotional equilibrium, or will the old scars and hurts continue to block any meaningful relationships? Can Nathan survive his lonely existence, or is he becoming a threat to himself, as many in his family, including his son, fear? The Lost Man is both mystery and a novel about the bonds of family, and how they can be both comforting and troubling.

I thought this was a fantastic book. There was so much to appreciate here, from Nathan's own issues and his fragile relationship with his son, to the brutal lives the family had under their father's thumb, and how everyone was determined that the sins of the father not repeat themselves. Harper did such a terrific job getting me completely hooked on this story, and I devoured the entire book in a day.

This isn't quite a thriller, but there certainly is suspense, and I was surprised by how Harper tied everything up. I'd actually love to see the Bright family again, that's how immersed I found myself in this story. Harper has had a fantastic run of books so far, and I look forward to what's coming next.

I received an advance copy of the novel courtesy of Flatiron Books. Thanks for making it available!

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