Review of The Dry, by Jane Harper

Farmers Hope For Rain As Drought Continues In New South Wales

Aaron Falk, a police detective from Melbourne, returns to his boyhood home of drought-stricken Kiewarra for the funeral of the family of Luke Hadler, his boyhood mate. Apparently Luke had blown his head off with his shotgun after first killing his wife Karen & their son. Twenty years before, Aaron’s father had taken his son and fled to the capital, pursued by Mal Deacon, the father of Luke’s & Aaron’s teenaged friend Ellie, who seemed to have drowned herself, leaving a note with the word ‘Falk’ written on it. Later, in a book Karen had borrowed from the library, Falk finds a note with the word ‘Grant’ & his own phone number. Grant is the name of Mal’s nephew, now Aaron’s principal persecutor. Jane Harper’s employing two ambiguous notes as clues brings out the strengths & the weaknesses of The Dry: telling economy of force, clues obscured with the simplest of misdirection, & ultimately a villainous plot too complicated to work in real life. The last need not be fatal artistically – I’ve read The Likeness four times – but it is that the more I learnt of the villain’s motive the less persuaded I became. After finishing a five star, you want to read it again, sometimes immediately, sometimes after it’s had time to settle. With The Dry, @ about 48 hours the fiction dissolved & the psychological improbabilities multiplied. As is common now, we’re given bits & pieces of the backstory in italics. Especially striking was this gem. Nerving up to do the deed, we’re told the villain was ‘whispering up a silent feverish prayer’ & as the victim approaches, the villain ‘sent up a silent prayer of thanks.‘ I nearly fell out of bed. Which god was the villain praying to – Kali? Except for Thugs & members of ISIS, who ever prays before committing serial murder? I went back over the longest colloquy the detective has with the eventually found out villain, and discovered no suggestion @ all that the killer was the kind of person who might perpetrate such an atrocity. Leaving aside religious maniacs, we find such murders are either accidents such as a robbery that ‘goes wrong’ or committed by thrill-seeking sociopaths as in ‘Funny Games’.

Many other psychological & spiritual shortcomings popped up on reflection. Even given that Mal is a senile nasty old idiot and Grant a mean drunk, their continued persecution of Aaron Falk is ultimately inexplicable & given the drought, filling his car with liquid shit a waste of water. Some of the clues seemed very arbitrary and based too much on coincidence – do all Australians choose shotguns with identical bores to blow away bunnies? A more spiritually & emotionally satisfying book would have made the tragic Ellie the principal character. That we don’t feel she haunts Aaron’s memory betrays his lack of empathy & failure to love. True, 17 year-old boys don’t do relationships – a good reason not to use their POVs if you’re seeking emotional depth. (A fault shared by J. D. Salinger & John Green BTW.)

Settings & descriptive passages, tho’, are excellent. The Dry reminded me constantly of Sharon Bolton’s Little Black Lies. Both movingly depict small communities under great stress & characters dealing with grief & unresolved problems from their pasts. In both the very landscape becomes a principal actor. As I’m a sailor not a farmer the Falkland Islands resonated better for me than the outback of the State of Victoria, tho’ I grew up in Texas & live in Iowa so I have some notion of what a drought & a farm crisis feel like, (I’d like to have listened the the audio for the voices – Australians basically strike me like Texans who talk like Bostonians – wearers of big hats who pronounce ‘khaki’ like what you use to start your ‘cah’! (I once saw the word spelled that way on a panel beater’s shop in Melbourne.) Perhaps Jane Harper should switch to nonfiction – I could imagine her in the same class as John McPhee. But as a fiction writer she doesn’t come near authors such as Tana French or Sharon Bolton, whose characters you love & care for & who raise moral & spiritual issues of complexity & poignancy. But The Dry ranks as a solid four-star, an excellent one time read. Most four-stars I find fast one-time reads; this one is slower & such a good read as to be worth the effort – once. Whilst I’ve heard future exploits are envisioned for Aaron Falk; I fear I shall be otherwise engaged.

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