Jane Harper’s intense crime novel, The Survivors is an exploration of the corrosive nature of guilt and the ways in which we cope with loss. The title refers both to a shipwreck memorial set on a rock formation on the inhospitable coastline of a dying Tasmanian community, and also to a destructive storm that claimed several lives from this small town. When the novel opens, physiotherapist Kieran Elliot returns home to Evelyn Bay 12 years after the drowning deaths of his brother Finn and his business partner, Toby. It’s a bitter return for Kieran, who, thanks to a foolish mistake, feels responsible for the deaths of Finn and Toby; he’s blamed and hated himself for years, but he’s back to help his aging parents, Brian & Verity, pack up and prepare for a move to a nursing home. Kieran’s father, once a vibrant, energetic man, now suffers from dementia. Kieran, who brings along his girlfriend Mia and their baby for the visit home, really had no idea just how much his father’s condition had progressed, and coming home has been painful.
Some residents still consider Kieran responsible for the drowning deaths of Finn and Toby, but Kieran has a few mates from his youth, including Olivia, Sean, and Ash to hang out with. Shortly after Kieran’s return, Bronte, a young art student from Canberra, who is working temporarily at Evelyn Bay, turns up dead on the beach, and her murder reawakens the disappearance of 13 year-old Gabby Birch, Olivia’s sister, 12-year before. Bronte’s murder brings all the poison from the past floating to the surface, and there are some in town who connect Kieran’s return to the crime. Other residents in this close-knit community would prefer to believe that the murderer is a tourist–not a resident. During the murder investigation, a detective begins to look into Gabby’s disappearance. Gabby vanished the day of the terrible storm which claimed the lives of Finn and Toby. Everyone, except Trish, Gabby’s mother, assumed that she had been drowned since her backpack was found washed up on the beach. In essence Gabby’s disappearance was incorporated into the storm and the drowning deaths. But the murder of Bronte causes some to question Gabby’s disappearance. Did she drown? Was she also murdered? Is Bronte’s murder somehow connected to Gabby’s disappearance?
There are not many characters in this brooding atmospheric novel. There’s a handful of Kieran’s friends, Kieran’s parents, Gabby and Olivia’s grief-stricken mother, a couple of people who work at the barely viable business, The Surf and Turf, a few policemen (the town’s police station is about to be closed,) and a writer who moves to Evelyn Bay only to encounter hostility when he trashes the landscaping of the home he bought.
Intense landscape descriptions have never been a thrill for me, but here in Jane Harper’s capable hands, the landscape is inseparable from the characters and the crimes. While the sea is beautiful, it’s also deadly, menacing and threatening. This is the essence of Nature, of course; it can be unpredictable, but what about human nature–the sense of imminent menace continues on land. This is a community where everyone knows everyone else; they’ve all grown up together, and in theory there are few secrets.
The mystery of Bronte’s murder and Gabby’s disappearance are seminal to this environment and its incubated simmering, brooding violence. Evelyn Bay is a stunningly beautiful yet miserable place-a place with a tourist attraction that commemorates death, and a diving business that lures tourists into revisiting death and tragedy. Kieran and Mia escaped, and the friends who remained behind are permanently stunted by the area’s oppressive, limited economy. The descriptions of the ocean are the most powerful I’ve ever read and they are matched by the descriptions of relentless grief–grief which ravages lives and snatches away any hope of peace. We all accept that grief is a normal, natural process, and yet here we see various versions of grief. Grief is a personal personal journey. Why are some aspects of grief socially acceptable while others are not? Gabby’s mother, Trish, never believed that Gabby drowned during the storm–she believed that her daughter’s body would have washed up somewhere is that had happened. But her theories and persistence have marginalized her and she’s labeled as a broken record, a sad nut case. She identifies with Bronte’s mother and argues that, once the anger has passed, she’ll end up “doing her own secret crazy things like the rest of us.”
“It never changes, you know. Even when they’re older. You’d take a bullet for someone who won’t even wave to you at the school gate. Then suddenly they’re ripped away and..” Trish shrugged.
The drownings, the murder and the disappearance–they have impacted all the town’s residents in various ways. The ravages of grief and the ravages of Time: Police Sgt Renn, who 12 years ago had been “fresh-faced and overeager to please” is permanently damaged by the unsolved mystery of Gabby Birch. The plot plays with the notion of various suspects and the ending was impossible to guess.
I listened to the audio version which was read, marvelously, by Stephen Shanahan.
The beach below was a thin strip, small enough that Kieran immediately felt uneasy. Out to sea, the waves lapped high at The Survivors. All around him, the birds bristled and flapped.
(And if you read this highly recommended book, IMO the crimes were ‘motive-sanitized’ by the perp.)