The Australian writer Jane Harper has become something of a sensation in the past few years, and she deserves the recognition. Her first three mysteries, “The Dry,” “Force of Nature,” and “The Lost Man,” mixed tense, complex plots with portraits of the dry and dusty Outback, peopled with characters full of life and love dealing with horrible life-altering events. Her latest novel, “The Survivors,” (Flatiron) offers an equally captivating setting but, this time, it’s all wet … in a good way. The story is set on the island state of Tasmania, in a small coastal village which we quickly come to know as closely as if we had spent some time there.
Fictional Evelyn Bay (population under 1,000) is a typical tourist town, known not only by picturesque scenery, but also by an intricate coastal cave system and outstanding scuba diving, the highlight being the opportunity to explore the remains of a shipwreck off the coast. The story opens as the tourist season is winding down. Sydney physiotherapist Kieran Elliott and his partner, Mia, and their infant daughter have come to help Kieran’s mother, Verity, get ready to move to the city. Kieran’s dad, Brian, is battling dementia, and he’ll go into a nursing home while Verity will live nearby. Both Kieran and Mia grew up in Evelyn Bay, and they have mixed feelings about returning, especially when the body of Bronte – a college student and aspiring artist who has been waiting tables over the summer at the local hangout, Surf and Turf – is found dead on the beach shortly after their arrival.
Bronte’s death brings back a whole lot of memories and unanswered questions, as the residents of Evelyn Bay recall a horrible tragedy from more than a decade earlier. That’s when Finn, Kieran’s older brother, and Toby, his best friend and business partner, were killed in a boating accident on the way to rescue Kieran, who had stupidly gotten trapped in the caves during a damaging and historic storm. A teenage girl, Gabby, who had been Mia’s best friend at the time, also went missing during the storm. Only her backpack was ever found, floating offshore, a few days later.
Kieran’s return to Evelyn Bay is as traumatic for him as it is for Liam, Toby’s son, who is now an adult and is still angry over the loss of his father. He blames Kieran for his father’s death. Kieran, however, is supported and surrounded by his close friends from childhood. There’s Ash, his soccer nemesis turned best friend, who is now the town’s landscaper; Olivia, who is dating Ash and is, like Bronte, a waitress at the Surf & Turf; and his best friend Sean, who was Toby’s brother and is Liam’s uncle. Sean now runs a fishing, snorkeling and scuba-diving business.
Kieran had only been back one day when Bronte’s body is found, and the trauma rekindles resentments from the past. He has been consumed with guilt over his role in Finn’s death, and struggles with his grief and loss every day. The lingering shame over what happened during what’s locally known as “the storm” has tarnished his relationship with his parents and many of his former friends, as well as his hometown. Evelyn Bay’s residents are split between those who would rather forget and those, like Gabby’s mother, who can’t let go of the past. Bronte’s death, which could involve some of the same players responsible for the town’s earlier tragedy, brings those two groups into conflict, assisted by the toxic environment of the local social network, where gossip and conspiracy theories are widespread.
All of this devastation and loss hangs over the town like a fog. There are many questions that were never answered when the big storm happened. Then, everyone was focused on the tragedy of the two men. But now, could the disappearance of Gabby and the murder of Bronte be connected? Kieran’s dementia-afflicted father seems to be the person who could have seen both of them last. And Liam seems to be a person of interest because he had given Bronte a lift to her house before she was murdered. There are twists and turns and red herrings, but mostly what’s clear is that there is a heavy atmosphere of guilt. Whether it be Kieran, his mother, Mia, Olivia or Brian, everyone blames themselves for something they did all those years ago. What the author does so well is weave the past into what is happening now, showing the remote town as an enchanting seaside place to visit in the summer but that has a dark heart at its core. That gloom is underscored by three iron sculptures called “The Survivors,” that look out to sea, never totally submerged. Always a reminder of death, they commemorate the loss of a ship, the SS Mary Minerva, that now lies 35 meters below in the sea. “The memorial commissioned in tribute to the 54 passengers and crew who had lost their lives nearly a century ago now stood on a rocky outcrop, facing out towards the site of the sinking.” The survivors of the title are not only those sad souls lost at sea long ago, but also the village’s residents, who are affected by more recent tragedies.
Several other characters are added to the story. Pendlebury, a senior detective, is sent from Tasmania’s capital, Hobart, to run the murder investigation of Bronte. He’s assisted by local cop Renn. The townspeople swear the killer was a tourist or other visitor, by now on the mainland. Pendlebury and Renn have their sights somewhat closer to home; the list of possible suspects runs from weirdo Liam to night-wandering Brian to who knows. Meanwhile, George Barlin, a popular crime writer, has just moved to the area to buy a house. He’s was teaching a workshop during the time of the storm and has since returned in the wake of a divorce. He says: “I really hoped I’d stay here long-term but now I’m not so sure. Places like this, they need to be tight-knit to work. Once the trust is broken, they’re stuffed. Whether people see it or not, the writing’s on the wall.”
The trust is broken in so many different ways. This is a book that focuses on the loss of innocence and trust, guilt, grieving and growing up. And it’s also a story of the sea, how immense and enigmatic it is – and how powerful it can prove to be when people underestimate it. “The Survivors” is an example of fine storytelling.