Jane Harper’s THE DRY is well named. The drought-ridden, stiflingly-hot town of Kiewarra and its surrounding farmland dominate the book. Remote. A small population; always someone you know nearby which can be a blessing and a curse. And the weather. Always the weather. Refusing, almost with intent, to give even a hint of relief from heat and dryness and failing to provide the sustenance needed for the farming everyone relies on for their livelihoods. Their lives.
The story opens with an all-too imaginable scene of an apparent murder-suicide of a farming family in this inhospitable place. All dead except for baby Charlotte
First on the scene, the flies swarmed contentedly in the heat as the blood pooled black over tiles and carpet. Outside, washing hung still on the rotary line, bone dry and stiff from the sun. A child’s scooter lay abandoned on the stepping stone path. Just one human heart beat within a kilometre radius of the farm.
We are drawn into the story of this place via Aaron Falk. Kiewarra has dominated his life too. He was born there but left as a teenager. Forced out. Literally. After one of his friends had died. Officially she committed suicide but many locals think Aaron played a role in her death. Only something as dramatic as his best friend Luke Hadler’s funeral brings him back 20 years later, after he’s made a life for himself as a Federal police officer in Melbourne. Well that and a veiled threat. Still Aaron plans to be in and out of town pretty quickly but Luke’s parents have other ideas. They don’t believe their son killed his wife, their son and himself. They want Aaron to prove it. Need him to prove it.
A lot of crime novels rely on abnormalities to keep readers’ attention. Serial killers with macabre fantasies. Impossibly convoluted crimes. Implausibly brilliant and/or quirky detectives. THE DRY has none of that. Even that horrendous weather is par for the course in the driest continent on the planet. Yet even without gimmicks and quirks, the story is completely gripping. There is such a palpable sense of the hidden here. Some people’s secrets are innocuous – merely an attempt to wrestle some privacy from life in the fish bowl that small town living can be. Others are embarrassing. Others are truly awful. Criminal. Harper does a brilliant job of keeping us guessing about which is which right through the novel.
THE DRY is a very modern tale of Australian life that happens to have a crime or two in it. There’s no criminal mastermind at work. Just ordinary people reacting to what they experience. What they think they know. Aaron feeling unable to walk away, wanting to know the truth about his old friend Luke. Once and for all. Luke’s parents wanting to feel like they can look people they’ve known all their lives in the eye again. The local policeman wondering if the murder suicide is really staged or does he just want it to be something unusual. Random locals believing the version of that long ago death that has become folklore. Amidst the powerful backdrop of place these people’s stories could get swamped but Harper brings them all vividly and realistically to life and makes the reader desperate to know what has brought each of them to the point at which we’ve met them.
It would be more remarkable that this is a debut novel – because it is about as flawless as they come – except that Harper is a long-time journalist. So storytelling is clearly not new for her. Even so, whatever she produces next will have a lot to live up to. I for one can’t wait.
My experience of this truly excellent book was further enhanced via a fabulous narration of the audio version by local voice artist Steve Shanahan. His voice changes for different characters are perfect, his cadence and pacing are natural and he seems to be enjoying the story himself (this is not always the case).
This is the 11th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
Publisher: This edition Wavesound Audio (original edition Pan Macmillan) 
Narrator: Steve Shanahan
Length: 9 hours 37 minutes
Format: audio book