Deep in the Australian outback is the 100-year-old grave of a stockman. The grave stands alone, its stone a memorial to a man who had been buried in the ground where he had died.
When The Lost Man opens, another figure is curled up beside it, as if seeking the little shade that the gravestone could offer. He is dead from fear and thirst. The ground around him is scuffed, suggesting a prolonged death as the heat and dehydration took their toll. It reaches 45°C in the outback. Cameron Bright had suffered. In that terrain, cause of death is not a mystery. But how he got there and why most definitely are.
Some books are difficult to categorise and The Lost Man is one of them. To describe it as a crime thriller suggests something fast-paced and intricate, which it is not. And featuring an investigator, which it doesn’t. Or at least, not in the conventional sense. It is, in fact, far more of a family saga with crime and thriller elements thrown in. But categorisation aside, just be aware that this is a slow-burner – and a very good one.
The family in question is three generations of the Brights. Carl and Liz Bright had three sons who inherited various parts of the thousands of outback acres on which they run cattle. Cameron was the golden boy and took over the family farm base after his father died and where his mother remains. On marriage, Nathan was allocated some poor land which he struggles to make pay. The youngest of the brothers is Bub, slow, frustrated and anxious to move away.
Nathan, the oldest of the brothers, is the focus of the novel. With a failed marriage behind him and a past that has condemned him in the eyes of the local community, he is a loner, isolated and depressed. He is, however, close to his son Xander. It is Nathan who pushes hardest to get to the bottom of Cam’s death.
The general supposition is that it was a bizarre suicide by a man who had seemed increasingly troubled. But when Cam’s car is found 8km away stashed with food, water and everything necessary for survival in the outback, the mystery deepens. If Cam wanted to kill himself, he chose a very odd and painful way to go about it.
Harper’s depiction of the landscape is superb. The sheer brutality of the outback, the isolation of its farms and communities, and the savagery of the heat permeate every page. There are dirt track roads on which “months, up to a year even, could slip away without a single visitor passing by”.
Nathan’s property covers 700sq km; the Bright homestead, 3,500sq km. The nearest small town is a three-hour drive away. The air is full of grit when the land is not submerged by flash flooding. It takes tough people to survive in environments such as these.
And yet, for all its harshness Nathan “felt connected to the outback in a way that he loved. There was something about the brutal heat when the sun was high in the sky and he was watching the slow meandering movement of the herds. Looking out over the wide-open plains and seeing the changing colours in the dust. It was the only time when he felt something close to happiness.”
From its simple beginning, The Lost Man becomes increasingly complicated. Over the course of the novel Harper opts for a slow reveal of the characters’ past histories. As well as the core family, two backpackers work as hands on the farm and in the house, together with Harry, the family retainer. One of this small group of intimately connected people knows more than he is saying. And what becomes clear is that Cam was not the avuncular figure he liked to present to the outside world.
In the video released to promote The Lost Man, Harper explains that she spent four months researching the book and spent time in the state of Queensland to ensure that she got the mood and the setting right. She has succeeded splendidly.
The result is intensely gripping and very well written; here’s a small example: when his mother hugs Nathan, “She reached up and put her arms around Nathan too. He hugged her back. The movement had the rusty edge of underuse.” That last phrase is so telling about their relationship.
Harper established a significant reputation with her two previous books, The Dry (2016) and Force Of Nature (2017). She has attracted prestigious awards and films of the books are likely to follow. The Lost Man will do nothing but confirm her already high reputation.
I enjoyed it enormously and would happily recommend it to anybody, with the possible exception of the Australian Tourist Board!
The Lost Man
Author: Jane Harper
Publisher: Little, Brown