“The Lost Man” by Jane Harper: the sins of the father

Even a fit forty-year-old like Cameron Bright cannot survive long in the Australian outback without water. So why was his dehydrated body found nine kilometres from his abandoned car, well-stocked with food and water? And why should he choose a painful death at a site which in his youth he had made the subject of a prize-winning painting: the grave of the stockman who had met a similar fate in the wilderness? Why should a well-liked family man with two young daughters and a successful business, with so much to live for, commit suicide? His brother Nathan was much more likely to have done so, being more obviously “ a lost man” struggling with an unprofitable landholding and debts accumulated from an acrimonious divorce.

This gripping psychological drama gradually reveals the truth about Cameron’s death, together with reasons for the intense hostility towards Nathan in the tight-knit, inward-looking local community and the complex way in which the three Bright brothers, Cameron, Nathan and their much younger brother Bub have been damaged by their father’s brutality, and also their mother’s inability to protect them.

Jane Harris puts her past experience as a journalist to good effect, in handling an intriguing plot, developing rounded characters, all flawed yet mostly commanding sympathy, in the fascinating setting of the outback which she appears to know well, yet I believe in fact researched for the purpose of this book. So we learn how people have adapted to living in a harsh, even dangerous environment, to which they have become attached. They must leave a note of their whereabouts every time they travel any distance from home, and failure to comply with certain conventions of mutual support is regarded as akin to a criminal offence. Even the system of home schooling, learning on line with all its potential shortcomings for young, not particularly motivated children with hard-pressed parents, is given a mention.
My only mild criticism of this novel is that, after the unflinching realism of much of the book, the ending seems a little too suddenly bland and “happy ever after feel-good”, which many readers will of course prefer to a more ambiguous “literary” conclusion.

Having found all the author’s first three novels page turners with the potential to be made into films, this seems to me to be the best.

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