"The Survivors" by Jane Harper; Flatiron (384 pages, $27.99)
To most people, The Survivors is an iron monument to the 54 passengers and crew killed in a shipwreck more than a century ago just outside Evelyn Bay, Tasmania, south of Australia’s mainland. The memorial also is a testament to three families who are survivors of more recent losses. Two young men launching their fishing business were killed 12 years earlier when their catamaran wrecked during the worst storm the area ever had — the same day a 14-year-old girl vanished.
Elegantly plotted with an evocative look at the area, “The Survivors” is a strong tale about surviving the ravages of guilt, grief, economic downturns and the tensions that can erupt from living in a tight-knit, yet claustrophobic community. In each of her novels, Australian native Jane Harper explores a different part of the country, as unique a force as any character.
Sports physiotherapist Kieran Elliott, his girlfriend Mia Sum and their 3-month-old daughter, Audrey, have returned to Evelyn Bay from Sydney to help his mother pack up the family home before they move his dementia-afflicted father into a nursing home. Myriad emotions taint the visit — Kieran’s brother Finn was one of the men killed in that 12-year-old wreck, which may have been caused because Finn and his friend, Toby, were trying to rescue Kieran.
Kieran’s presence makes the memory of that wreck more prominent and mixed emotions swirl around his reunion with his parents and his friends. The feelings of guilt and grief are exacerbated when college student and budding artist Bronte Laidler is murdered.
Harper expertly illustrates the different landscapes of Australia, adding heft to her compelling plot and believable characters. In 2019's “The Lost Man,” Harper depicted an unforgiving, hardscrabble outback of Queensland. In “The Survivors,” the remote Evelyn Bay — population under 1,000 — depends on tourism that disappears when the weather changes.
“Somewhere invisible to the north lay mainland Australia, to the far south Antarctica. In front of them, nothing all the way to the horizon. Most of the younger residents leave for bigger cities, seeking education and better jobs. The insular community thrives on gossip and inuendo — ”whispers and hearsay and heated exclamations . . . bouncing from mouth to ear.” Yet, here, residents need each other more than in any city. “Places like this, they need to be tight-knit to work. Once the trust is broken, they’re stuffed,” says one character.
“The Survivors” is another example of Harper’s fine storytelling.