Little, Brown | 2019 (7 February) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is Christmas and the outback desert of Queensland, Australia, is baked by the relentless sun. Three brothers, Nathan, Cameron and Bub Bright, own vast ranches, relatively close to the single street that is called Balamara. It’s the closest thing to a town round here. Where the brothers’ properties meet stands a gravestone, marking the spot where a stockman died a century before. A dreadful, lonely, hot place in which to die. And now it’s become a grave again – Cameron is found lying next to it, the sun having done its deadly work. As Nathan and Bub stand over their brother’s body, they can only wonder why Cameron abandoned a car full of water and other supplies to walk to his death. In an environment as hostile as this, death is not uncommon but there’s a mystery here that may tear the Bright family apart.
The Lost Man is the third standalone novel by Jane Harper and, despite the stiff competition offered by its predecessors The Dry and Force of Nature, I think it’s my favourite and confirms why Jane Harper is an author whose books I will always seek out.
Once again, Jane Harper brilliantly visualises the outback as well as those hardy people who have to make a living from it. This landscape, especially to someone who lives in small, green Britain, is vast, dusty, empty and barren. Above all, it is monstrously hot. A short walk could prove the death of a strong man. We see the preparations that people make to survive the unexpected, which surprisingly includes floods. The Lost Man is full of little details about the safeguards people take – the book that everyone must write in when they go out, the cold larders that must be kept stocked, their goods religiously counted, the cool boxes in the vehicles. It’s a way of life that is both fascinating and fearsome. These are people covered with the scars left by skin cancer incisions, their skin is tough and leathered, they don’t waste time on talk. Women face their own issues. This is a man’s world but it wouldn’t exist without the women they rely on. And yet you can can also sense why these people, the Brights, for example, don’t want to leave. There’s something almost noble in their strength of character and resolve.
The Bright family is scrutinised in these pages. They can go months without seeing each other, perhaps without seeing anyone at all, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that so much is left unsaid. The layers are peeled away as we spend time getting to know the generations of the Bright family. Nathan, in particular, is driven to know what happened to Cameron. The more he learns about Cameron, the more we learn about Nathan. It’s a sad, troubling tale but Nathan lies at the heart of The Lost Man. He is perhaps more lost than anyone.
This is stunning writing and it is supported by such insight into the lives of these men, women and children. It’s completely involving, atmospheric and exposed. The novel takes its time. The emphasis here is on character as Nathan in particular reflects on the events that shaped his own and his family’s life. Nathan’s relationship with his teenage son Xander is lovingly explored. I cared for these people. And the ending when it comes is utterly engrossing. But by that time we have been thoroughly immersed in this harsh land.
The heat, dust and merciless cruelty of the outback desert at the height of summer is relentless and superbly depicted in The Lost Man. The mystery is very much character-driven. It is all about families and relationships between a small group of people who live such remote and difficult lives. But there is as much love as there are secrets. It’s an excellent novel, beautifully written. Jane Harper is an irresistible writer.