The town of Kiewarra is a dusty five hour drive from Melbourne. Five hours. Six, maybe, if you weren’t that anxious to get there. Five hours, under the same relentless sun, but it might as well be fifty, for all the similarity there is. Melbourne, with its prosperity, its glass and steel central business district, its internationally renowned restaurants and its louche air as a cosmopolitan city. Kiewarra. A pub, a couple of bottle shops and a milk bar; a run-down school, starved of funds; a farming economy choked and parched by two years without rain; families turned bitter and taciturn by the shared misery of failed crops and burgeoning overdrafts. Author Jane Harper (left) takes us right into the deep dark blue centre of this community.
It is to Kiewarra that Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns. It is his home town, but he expects no palm leaves to be strewn in his path, no hymns of rejoicing. The only hymn he hears is the obligatory and badly sung offering at the funeral of an old friend, Luke Hadler. Falk and Hadler grew up together. Hadler stayed to work the family farm, while Falk and his father left for Melbourne under a very dark cloud.
Seeing the coffin of a contemporary being carried through the church is bad enough for Falk, but when it is followed by two smaller ones, one being very much smaller, that is a different thing altogether. For the other two coffins are occupied by Hadler’s wife Karen, and his young son Billy. The story has played out across the mainstream media as a suicide-killing. Luke Hadler, driven mad by debt, failure, jealousy, despair – who knows? – has shot dead his wife and son, and then turned the gun on himself, albeit leaving his thirteen month old daughter Charlotte in her cot, screaming, terrified, but very much alive.
Falk’s ambivalence about returning to his home town is because of the death of a teenage girl, decades earlier. Ellie Deacon was found drowned in the local river, heavy stones crammed into her pockets. She, Falk and Hadler were inseparable companions at junior school, but as their teenage years triggered the inevitable hormones, their relationship became more complicated. The scribbled name “Falk” on a note found among Ellie’s possessions led local people to suspect that Aaron – or his father – had been involved in the death. Aaron and Luke had given each other unshakable alibis for the day of Ellie’s death, but local gossip and suspicion had forced the Falks out of town, never to return. Until now.
In the face of considerable aggression from local people, for whom the distant tragedy might have happened only yesterday, Falk is drawn into a re-investigation of the Hadler killings. Alongside a supportive local copper, Falk uncovers inconsistencies in the various stories people have told about the fatal day, even down to the hours and minutes before the carnage at the Hadler farmhouse was uncovered. As he goes about his work, however, the truth about what really happened on the day Ellie Deacon died hangs over our heads, as readers, like a miasma, malign and reeking of corruption.
This novel is a triumph on so many levels. It is a very clever and subtle whodunnit, and unless you cheated and skipped to last few pages, I doubt you will pick up the clues as to who killed the Hadlers. It is also a poignant elegy for youth, memory and the golden past which, when examined closely, loses some of its apparent lustre. It is an acutely accurate portrait of Australian rural life and how, at the margins, people with European urban lifestyles and ambitions are at the total mercy of the elements. The physical landscape could not be more real. We shield our eyes from the relentless glare of the sun, we feel the crackle of dead and desiccated vegetation under our feet, we hear the relentless drone of the blowflies who seem to be the only flourishing life form in town.
Sometimes, novels which emerge to the echoes of a great media fanfare don’t live up to the glory and resonance of the musical accompaniment. The Dry, I am happy to say, is not one of those. It is a brilliant and haunting masterpiece.