Force of Nature
Jane Harper had been a journalist for a decade when she decided she wanted to write fiction. So, she did what many of us do when we want to learn a new skill: She took an online course. It must have been a hell of a course because her debut novel The Dry–which she wrote in 12 weeks–became an award-winning, NYT best-seller, and has been optioned by Reese Witherspoon.
Have you read The Dry? No? It’s good, really good. It made my top ten list for 2017 and those I’ve given it to have been unable to put it down.
The Dry introduced (Australian) Federal Agent Aaron Falk. In that book, Falk returned to his hometown of Kiewarra–for the first time in 25 years– a town a five-hour drive from Melbourne, for the funeral of his best friend. Kiewarra is in the third year of a once-in-a-lifetime drought that’s destroying this rural farming community. Harper makes you feel the dust, the dryness, and the fear and anger the unrelenting sun stokes every day.
In Force of Nature, that sense of place is again meticulously rendered. Here, it’s the Australian bush. Two teams from the accounting firm BaileyTennants, one all women and one all male, supervisors and staff, head out for a three-day team-building retreat in the mountains a few hours east of Melbourne. When they return, the women hours past schedule, one employee, Alice Russell, is missing.
Aaron and his partner Carmen are called in from Melbourne–Alice called Aaron early the morning she was reported missing. Alice, you see, is the key to a money-laundering case the Feds are building against the Baileys. Jill and Daniel Bailey were both on the retreat.
The book alternates between the present investigation and the days of the retreat. The five women comprise an uneasy group: Jill, Alice and Lauren who, decades ago, went to school together, and Bree and Beth, twin sisters one of whom is remarkably unreliable. Each was selected for the retreat and not one wants to be there. Hours after leaving the lodge–base camp–the women begin to bicker and, within a day, they’re lost.
The second-best part of this compulsively readable book is the hour by hour recap of the three days the women wander through the mountains. The narration is omniscient so we see the perspectives of all five and, as they muse on the hell they’re in now, they share pieces of the past that may or may not be why Alice is gone.
The best part of Force of Nature, as it was in The Dry, is the setting. You feel every drip from the oppressive trees, flinch at the sharp rocks that trip the hikers, and shiver at the animal sounds heard in the pitch night. Again and again, the women try and get a signal on Alice’s phone–which, of course, she wasn’t supposed to bring–and every time it fails. Here, nature is implacable and, until the final pages, you won’t be able to decide if it’s the bush or Alice’s many enemies who posed to her the greatest threat.
I didn’t love the resolution of what happened to Alice and the last few chapters of the book are rushed. Force of Nature isn’t the powerhouse The Dry is. But it’s not a disappointment, either. Falk is a laconic, compelling sleuth. Watching him try to parse those women, all of whom have secrets, makes for excellent entertainment. I’m already waiting for book three.