Force of Nature – Jane Harper
Reviewer: Kate Jenkins
Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along the muddy track. Only four come out the other side.
The hike through the rugged Giralang Ranges is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and teach resilience and team building. At least that is what the corporate retreat website advertises.
Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a particularly keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing bushwalker. Alice Russell is the whistleblower in his latest case – in just a matter of days she was to provide the documents that will bring down the company she works for.
Falk discovers that far from the hike encouraging teamwork, the women tell a tale of suspicion, violence and disintegrating trust. But does it include murder?
Review by Kate Jenkins
This book follows Jane Harper’s successful debut novel, The Dry, and it doesn’t disappoint. Federal agent and financial investigator, Aaron Falk, is back again, based in Melbourne and working on an official case with a new partner, Carmen Cooper. They’re investigating BaileyBennets, a company that we’re told has been exploiting people for decades, (although we never find out the nature of the crimes, a minor weakness in the novel.)
When their whistleblower, Alice Russell, disappears in the Giralang Ranges on a team building excursion, Aaron and Carmen join in the search for her, not knowing if there is a connection between her disappearance and the documents she was about to deliver to them.
‘What about Alice?’ is a question asked at the beginning and the end of the book, and it’s a question to which we want to know the answer, thanks to Harper’s narrative technique of changing time and point of view in alternating chapters. As Aaron and Carmen get closer to finding out what happened to Alice, we follow the progress of the women through the bush, as they fail to rise to the challenge of the exercise, and as fear heightens underlying conflicts.
The mystery of the disappearance of Alice and the resolution and exposee is believable and derives from the characters who are convincingly portrayed through group dynamics, as their personalities, problems and conflicts are gradually revealed. The twin sisters Bree and Beth, so different and yet tied by blood, with Beth, the recovering addict atoning for her past, emerging as the person with the most self knowledge and honesty; Lauren and Alice, whose relationship goes back to their school days where Lauren experienced the sharp end of Alice’s personality; their two daughters whose flaws mimic those of their mothers’; and grim and determined Jill Bailey, the only woman who emerges unscathed from the hike, but who ironically faces the consequences for her role in the company’s wrongdoing.
Adding another layer of interest to the novel is the intensity of the family relationships that are integral to the plot: mothers and daughters; fathers and sons; sisters and brothers. Even the sub plot involving a serial killer who gives a particularly sinister edge to the Giralang Ranges involves a father son relationship, and the experiences Falk undergoes in the search for Alice help him to better understand his own father.
For me, the need for Aaron and Carmen to close the case against the company lacks conviction, but it is compensated for by the suspense generated around the group of women hikers. Falk does not seem to have a personal investment in this case, which makes his character less compelling than in The Dry, but he is still an engaging and likeable character. The relationship with his new work partner doesn’t exactly fizz, but who knows what will happen in the next book? Highly recommended.