Saturday, January 30, 2021


THE SURVIVORS by Jane Harper (Pan McMillan, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Kieran Elliott's life changed forever on the day a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences.

The guilt that still haunts him resurfaces during a visit with his young family to the small coastal community he once called home. Kieran's parents are struggling in a town where fortunes are forged by the sea. Between them all is his absent brother, Finn.

When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away...

Melbourne author Jane Harper has made a global name for herself with some exceptional crime novels set in the arid heat of the Australian Outback. First with her terrific debut THE DRY, which went on to win the CWA Gold Dagger among a host of other prizes. Then she cemented herself as one of the new crime queens with THE LOST MAN, a brilliant standalone that may be even better than her debut (I thought so). 

In between Harper wrote FORCE OF NATURE, a very good second novel set in the colder, wetter climes of the Giralang Ranges outside Melbourne. In her fourth and latest novel Harper again recedes from the heat, immersing readers in the surging seas and swirling secrets of a Tasmanian beach town.

With THE SURVIVORS Harper demonstrates that she has a brilliant touch for evocative settings, no matter the climate, and flawed characters that draw you in and feel all-too-real. 

Kieran Elliot grew up as a boy in a beach town - the type of place sprinkled around the long coastlines of Australia (and New Zealand) that surges in summer, blending together tourists and summer holidaymakers with long-time locals. It's an interesting mix in those kinds of places that drew many to them temporarily, while others who live there perhaps take it for granted and just want to escape.

(Having grown up in a small antipodean town near the sea, backed by hillsides and rural landscapes, I certainly recognised a lot of what Harper was putting on the page. Murders aside.) 

Kieran is a local who escaped, and he's rather reluctantly back in Evelyn Bay. A new father, he’s returned to the hometown he’s largely avoided for so many years to help his elderly parents pack up their house. His own father has early onset dementia and is heading into care. 

Tensions are higher than usual. And usual was high enough given the blame game all have quietly played over the loss of Kieran’s brother in a violent storm years before. While Kieran was a long-time local in a close-knit community that draws lines between locals and summer visitors, past tragedies mean that for Kieran Evelyn Bay contains old foes as well as old friends. 

When the body of a young woman is found on the beach, the investigation threatens to unearth long-held secrets, and widen the fissures within the community. Echoes of another young woman who vanished during the massive storm years before have everyone on edge. Kieran and his family and friends have to confront their pasts as well as trying to survive and find justice in the present.

THE SURVIVORS is a really good read, where Harper once again showcases her magnificent storytelling skills. It's tense and absorbing rather than pedal-to-the-metal crime. An absorbing tale rich in character and setting that seems like a slow burn, but like a campfire being slowly stoked by twigs then sticks then bigger branches, it builds into a storytelling heat that reaches deep into you. 

There’s a subtle power to Harper’s prose, and her evocation of the small beach town and its citizens. Marinating on what I'd read afterwards, I'm wondering whether it may be Harper's best yet. It won't be a favourite for readers who greatly prefer the Outback setting, or perhaps aren't quite such a fan of the slow, rich build that Harper employs in THE SURVIVORS. But for me, it was magnificent. 

Highly recommended. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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