This book is so good, so dazzling and hypnotic that I really couldn’t put it down. It’s the mesmerising story of the Bright family: three 30-something brothers, their widowed mother, a daughter-in-law, and two little girls. But the way this family lives is not as we live. And therein lies the stark beauty of this novel.
The Brights, cattle farmers, live in the Australian outback, 1,500 kilometres west of Brisbane, and a few hundred kilometres from where the true desert begins, where the horizon is ‘so flat and far away it seemed possible to detect the curvature of the earth’. This intense landscape, all flat red sand and grit, is so hauntingly evoked by the writer that the family story and the murder mystery it describes seem not to just inhabit the solitary wilderness, but to be spawned by it.
At the beginning one of the three brothers is found dead at a local landmark, a stark and singular stone monolith at the edge of the desert, known as the stockman’s grave. Legends abound about its origin.
Cam, the dead brother, was ostensibly the best golden boy of the Bright family. The two remaining siblings are Nathan, the oldest, and Lee, nicknamed Bub, the youngest and least intelligent of the three. The story is told by Nathan, a sad, strange and intensely lonely man who tries desperately to understand how his brother has died.
Can you imagine living in a place where your nearest neighbour is three hours’ drive away; where the remains of fossilised sea-shells mark the memory of a vast, pre-historic inland sea; where anyone who leaves the shelter, shade and air conditioning of their car becomes rapidly disorientated under the relentless sun that will bake them to death? That’s the backdrop to murder in Jane Harper’s brilliant new book.
Cam’s four-wheel drive, packed with food, water, fuel and everything necessary to survive in this hostile world is found eight kilometres away from his body. There are no obvious suspects, and the conclusion is that Cam took his own life in the most horrible way. With no water or shade, he simply let himself fry under the fierce sun until he died.
Nathan, a man whose messy divorce has left him living in total isolation on his own unprosperous cattle farm many hours’ drive from his old family home, is deeply disturbed by Cam’s death. He doesn’t buy the suicide theory but can’t work out how else his brother could have died so inexplicably. For reasons to do with his failed marriage, Nathan is spurned by the isolated local community. Solitary and increasingly distanced from humanity, he slowly uncovers the ancient wounds hatred and fear bred in this extraordinary landscape.
Gradually, the truth is revealed. Jane Harper’s first novel, Dry, was hugely acclaimed. The Lost Man is even better. Harper’s acute sense of Australia’s unforgiving landscape and the emotions it stirs makes for an absolutely gripping read. A truly magnificent book.