Review: Force of Nature
by Jane Harper (Flatiron Books, 2018)
Long-buried secrets and tiny clues eventually wash clean with the rain during a missing person mystery set in Australia’s remote (fictional) Giralang Ranges. Federal Police Agents Carmen Cooper and Aaron Falk are called into the wilderness to find Alice, who has gone missing during a corporate retreat. Alice is the Federal Police’s confidential informant for an ongoing financial investigation of BaileyTennants, the company on retreat. While corporate retreats are designed to move people out of their comfort zones, the characters here stumble through a series of increasingly complicated situations. Each of the five women gone walkabout carries emotional baggage and unresolved rivalries (professional and personal) from “real” life. They’re set loose in the wilderness without a guide, and when things go wrong, a major search-and-rescue effort ensues.
The writing here is smart, suspenseful, and concise, with plot twists sharper than a snakebite. Good character snapshots overall, but the novel would benefit from more romantic tension between Agents Falk and Cooper (hinted at but not fully realized). The retreat participants split into male/female teams, and are sent off on different trails. The book doesn’t dive very deep into the dynamics of the men’s group, even if one of them might be implicated in Alice’s disappearance. My favorite character is Beth (lowest-person on the corporate ladder) whose personal demons require daily, hourly strength and reckoning. She’s a survivor, and not easily broken by the stress of being lost in the wild.
The detective work and premise are alluring, yet I yearned for more specifically Australian details. Where are the Vegemite sandwiches, tea from a billy, or bushcraft skills? Where are the Aboriginal dreamtime myths, or idioms that ring absolutely of the land down under? In an era of continued globalization of culture, it would be refreshing to dive deeper into the unique, distinct voices of this region. I yearn for more than a mere single mention of “the scent of damp eucalyptus” or “somewhere deep the bush, invisible kookaburras laughed and screamed.” I want to count all the ways that this setting is unique, and dangerous, and elemental. In the era of #MeToo, I’d like to read more about sexual politics hinted at both within the BaileyTennants company and in the Federal Police hierarchy.
Jane Harper delivers a nicely layered psychological thriller, on the heels of her debut novel The Dry, which also features Detective Aaron Falk and has won scads of literary prizes. Can’t wait to read whatever comes next.