“Force of Nature” by Jane Harper

This is my review of Force of Nature by Jane Harper.

When Alice Russell fails to return from a corporate retreat involving a team-building exercise in the remote Australian Giralang Ranges with their sinister recent history as the haunt of a serial killer, Federal Agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper naturally assume a link with their undercover work to persuade Alice to obtain information which will incriminate her employers at BaileyTennants, a family firm suspected of long-term money laundering. As the story develops, alternating between the search for Alice and the flashbacks revealing the chain of events from the start of the four day retreat, it becomes clear that at least four of her work colleagues have a clear motive for killing her. Another possibility is of course the emergence of a new copy-cat serial killer. Or has Alice simply seized the opportunity to go AWOL for a whileas the least-worst option?

As in “The Dry” which made the author’s name on the bestseller list, Jane Harper sustains her talent for writing psychological thrillers, keeping a tight control on her material to drip-feed dramatic events and clues, and developing her characters in-depth as she ramps up the tension, exploiting to the full with a strong sense of place the “force of nature” in the menace of the wild rain-swept landscape, in which one tree is indistinguishable from another, paths peter out or offer confusing choices, carpet pythons lurk in rotten trunks, and communication with the outside world is abruptly cut off, the sole mobile phone smuggled onto the retreat providing too weak and fitful a signal to provide more than the odd tantalising fragment of contact.

In a kind of adult Aussie take on “Lord of the Flies”, the force of nature is also revealed in the rapid disintegration of the façade of civilised behaviour between the five women once they are transplanted from their structured work environment to the wilderness where basic survival becomes the main issue. There are parallels of course, between the way people bully and manipulate each other in their “normal” everyday world and the more physically brutal and critical way they may compete for vital scarce resources in situations of physical extremity. As one character observes, “It wasn’t any one thing that went wrong, it was a hundred little things.” Each inexorably adds to the ultimate crisis.

Although, when one reflects on it afterwards, not much happens, and the power of the tale depends on how the facts are revealed, the novel proved a gripping read at the time. Any repetition can be justified as reinforcing the oppressive situation in which the team of five women find themselves, and I also liked the way that the author knows when to stop, having given us the denouement but leaving the details of the outcomes to our imagination.

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