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Human nature in ‘Force of Nature’

By Gretchen Shirm
In Jane Harper’s new crime thriller, group tensions boil over in the bush

Appearing on the first page of Jane Harper’s new crime novel is a sentence with tantalising narrative implications. A group of men, having completed a hike through the wilderness as part of their corporate retreat, “slapped each other on the shoulders as they emerged from the tree line”. The women’s group, meanwhile, has had to contend with more obstacles and, arriving late to the rendezvous point, one woman is suffering from a head injury, another from a snakebite, and another is missing. There’s a delicious allegory of corporate life here, as the men sit unaware in their minibus, and the narrator quips, “If this were a boardroom crisis, they’d know what to do.”

If the double murder–suicide was the grisly drawcard that lured readers into Harper’s immensely successful first novel The Dry, the missing person mystery is the hook at the centre of this book, with all its attendant narrative snares. Alice Russell, a woman with “a mean streak so sharp it could cut you”, is the missing person: a feared and revered senior executive at BaileyTennants, a boutique Melbourne accounting firm. Alice went missing in the Giralang Ranges during a “team-building exercise” arranged by her employer.

Apparently intent on a franchise, Harper has resurrected the protagonist of The Dry, Aaron Falk, to guide us through the twists and turns of Force of Nature (Pan Macmillan; $32.99). Though Falk is a federal officer, his interest derives from Alice’s involvement in his money-laundering investigation. As his informer, she agreed to leak crucial documents evidencing BaileyTennants’ “creative accounting”. Falk now worries that his influence might have contributed to her fate. Although phones were forbidden on the retreat, Alice snuck hers into a backpack, and when the group became lost, the possibility of finding a signal in the bush was the lifeline the women’s party desperately needed. A message has been left on Falk’s phone but the only audible words are “hurt her” and it is unclear whether that message was left by Alice or someone in possession of her phone.

Harper is onto a winning formula with Falk – a young, single man with a strong moral compass who grew up on a farm and with the type of emotional detachment that makes him a blank slate; the sort of character that provides assurance and stability, in that his reactions mirror and validate those of the reader.

The “force” referred to in the novel’s title is as much about the various personalities in the book as it is about the natural landscape. Indeed, the strongest force in the novel is Alice, who is tenacious and forthright, qualities that have enabled her to succeed in a male-dominated workplace. After the women’s team gets lost, Alice decides to navigate her way out of the wilderness alone, which is where things go wrong.

The women’s team includes Jill Bailey, the sister of BaileyTennants’ chief executive, Daniel Bailey, and reluctant participant in the family business; Jill is the voice of moderation and compromise when the party becomes lost. Twin sisters Bree and Beth were estranged for years before Beth came to work for BaileyTennants. Bree is the ambitious graduate intent on forging a career at the exclusive firm, while Beth is the clumsy and undisciplined smoker on whom Alice blames every problem, though she is the only one among them capable of standing up to her. The final member of the team is Lauren, whose delightfully tautological job title is “strategic head of forward planning”, and who coincidentally went to the exclusive Endeavour Ladies College with Alice – acrimony has existed between them since Alice abandoned her during a high-school navigational exercise at a bushland campus reminiscent of Geelong Grammar’s Timbertop. If Harper’s characters fit neatly into types, it’s a mix that allows her to manipulate our expectations in terms of how they behave. The omniscient narrator also allows Harper to flit between perspectives, meting out clues about Alice’s disappearance. Alice herself seems all too cunning and wily to be the victim of an accident, and we half expect her to turn up unscathed in her sleek home in a Melbourne suburb, described as the “picture of expensive serenity”.

In a stroke of structural ingenuity, Harper splits the narrative between Falk’s interest in the ongoing search for Alice and the story of the women’s party as their navigation leads them away from the path where misadventure befalls them. This creates tension between what the search uncovers and what we learn took place as it happened.

Harper taps the cultural nerve by throwing Martin Kovac into the mix, an Ivan Milat–like serial murderer, who used the location to lay his victims to rest. Although Kovac is now incarcerated, Kovac’s son was long suspected of having colluded with him and there remains the question of the victim whose body was never found. Harper also gestures towards the power of the wilderness, where “the bush seemed like the kind of place that kept secrets well” and the “landscape seemed to shift and alter when unobserved”.

In Australian narratives, characters frequently contend with the harshness of the landscape, facing insurmountable difficulties: drought, bushfire, isolation – from Picnic at Hanging Rock, Voss and The Drover’s Wife to Wake in Fright and Wolf Creek. Yet Harper isn’t so much working to create this type of narrative as offsetting her own story against our awareness of these narrative shapes. Although the bush is intended to menace and bewilder, Harper is too busy setting the narrative pace to fully explore what it is like to be lost in the bush; more evocative details might have achieved this. Moreover, the narrative is not closely aligned enough to one perspective for this to happen effectively. In the end, it’s not the landscape that Harper is concerned with so much as the people within it and their ability to cause one another harm.

Groups of women and how they relate to each other in a male-dominated context are of more interest to the author. On the first night of their hike, the women meet up with the male group for a night of drunken revelry and although the groups never meet again, their competitiveness is palpable. The way the women interrelate is also informed by their corporate hierarchy, despite their current distance from this context. Harper also pokes fun at the relentless individualism that pervades corporate culture, the sort of behaviour this type of team-building retreat is intended to counteract but ends up reinforcing. Alice is the most ambitious of the group, but harbours only disdain for the exercise.

Introduced into the narrative are Alice and Lauren’s daughters, students at their mothers’ alma mater, one of whom whose former boyfriend has apparently circulated sexually explicit images of her among her peers, and the other who apparently suffers an eating disorder. The parallels between the mothers’ and daughters’ behaviour are among the most interesting ideas in Force of Nature, albeit given only superficial treatment.

On the other hand, this is a crime novel and readers of this genre want the crime and its denouement; they’re less interested in a broader examination of the social context, and the novel reflects this. Harper knows how to sink us into the moment. As Bree reads a map, “Spots of rain bled into the paper and one corner blew back over itself, forming a crease.“ And in the swimming pool in Alice’s backyard, “The cloud patterns reflected off the smooth surface of the pool.” Towards the end, however, there is some sloppiness – mixed metaphors and clichéd similes – perhaps reflecting the haste with which this book followed the first: “The ghost of the previous evening still clinging to them like smoke”, insults cut “like glass”, dust particles swirl, and hope is snatched away “like a rug pulled from under her feet”.

Mostly, though, this well-oiled machine of a novel hums along finely and its destination is not what we expect. Much like the male party, who finish early, slapping each other’s backs, we close the book satisfied with the resolution. Then we look up at the world around us and wonder what’s next.

Gretchen Shirm

Gretchen Shirm is a Sydney writer and critic. Her first book was Having Cried Wolf.

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