Desert Isle Keeper
At the head of a series of dark, dangerous sea caves on a solitary coast in Tasmania stand a set of statues overlooking a tumultuous part of a seemingly endless ocean. This is the setting for Jane Harper’s The Survivors, a thriller which examines the cost of suffering and the rewards for endurance.
Kieran Elliott doesn’t like to come back to his parent’s home under the best of circumstances, and the present reality is far from ideal, making this trip especially torturous. He is helping his mother pack up the house in which he grew up, which has become too much to manage with his father’s worsening dementia. As he and his girlfriend Mia move knick-knacks from shelves to boxes and care for their newborn daughter Audrey, they find themselves suffering from both physical and emotional exhaustion. Tasmania holds bad memories for them both, recollections of a catastrophic storm which changed their lives forever: Mia lost her best friend Gabby under mysterious circumstances and Kieran’s brother Finn drowned while trying to perform a rescue during the gale.
There are good aspects to being back too though, and one of those is the chance to reconnect with Olivia and Ash, two of Mia and Kieran’s closest friends. The foursome meets at the Surf and Turf, a local pub, to grab drinks and catch up. One of the waitresses there is Olivia’s housemate Bronte, who is young, friendly and easy on the eyes. The eatery is all but deserted so everyone has a chance to catch up, talk to the new girl and relax. The (mostly) good vibes stay with Kieran and Mia till they are almost run over by a recklessly speeding car on the short walk home. It is an ominous precursor of things to come.
The next morning Kieran and Mia, along with their friends and family, learn that Bronte has drowned. What is initially viewed as an accident by the locals quickly changes to a murder investigation as bruising on her torso confirms she was forcibly held beneath the water. It isn’t long before everyone on the island is looking at each other with suspicion, swiftly followed by comparisons to that time twelve years ago when Gabby disappeared during the worst squall in island history.
Harper excels at using her setting to great advantage and in The Survivors she creates an eerie, atmospheric location perfect for a mystery. I loved how superbly she captures the sensation of small town living – there is the cozy comfort of being known by and familiar with everyone around you but there is also the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped and spied on by those whom you call friends and family. There is the idea that everything you do is fodder for gossip the second it happens, and yet underlying all that is the awareness that everyone has secrets and all are desperate to keep them. The author spins everything together to take a seemingly innocuous community and build within it a tense, dangerous ambience.
It is the secrets – the need to keep some small, banal pieces of oneself private and the confined nature of the district making that difficult – which drives the story. There is no real sense of menace, no feeling of a killer unleashed and about to wreak devastation on the area, but there is a sense of mounting pressure as the small, hidden pieces of the past seem determined to break through to the surface.
Every character here has a beautiful depth to them that gives dimension to the tale. Kieran and Mia have chosen to move forward from their losses of twelve years before and create new and improved lives for themselves. They are both kind, caring, compassionate people who have become better rather than bitter as a result of what they went through. As they interact with other denizens of the community they learn that not everyone has been able to do that and that loss has etched deep, lasting wounds in many of the locals. I really appreciated how the author emphasizes that everyone’s journey through grief is different and how small things can affect how well we are able to cope.
I also appreciated how she is able to endow everyone who comes on the page with a unique, realistic personality which made the story feel very true to life. From the police who are investigating the crime to the author who’s recently moved to the island, there is a solidity to those who appear on the page so that they don’t just come across as parts in a story.
The pacing here manages to be both languorous and strained. On the one hand, everyone is understandably upset and anxious about what happened and yet investigations take time. The endless police interviews and combing of the area for clues take days, which in itself creates another layer of anxiety. The people all want justice to prevail but they also all want to just get back to their lives without the worry and suspicion which currently permeates their neighborly interactions. As one outsider aptly puts it, “Places like this, they need to be tight-knit to work. Once the trust is broken, they’re stuffed. Whether people see it or not, the writing’s on the wall.” This is the underlying emotion that infuses everything and everyone; the perception that this latest blow to the town might destroy all they’ve built.
The Survivors is a deeply fascinating mystery which closely examines human interactions and the small things that can cause big problems in those relationships. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys suspense stories.
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