The town of Kiewarra, somewhere in rural south-eastern Australia, is a community on the brink. A drought is making life extremely difficult for the locals. So nobody is really surprised when farmer Luke Hadler is found with a self-inflicted shotgun wound, his wife and eldest son murdered with the same weapon. Only Luke’s baby daughter survives, an infant’s cry echoing through an empty farm.
Aaron Falk left Kiewarra at 16 – run out of town after the death of his friend Ellie Deacon, found floating in the river with pockets full of stones. No-one was really sure what happened to Ellie, just that a note was found later with the date of her disappearance and the name ‘Falk’. What does it mean? After all, what kind of 16-year-old calls her best friend and possible lover by their surname? But the note alone is enough for the townspeople to turn their hate on Aaron and his father, driving them out for good. They move to Melbourne, and Aaron does not return to his hometown until the funeral of Luke and his family.
The small town, crippled by drought, is shocked that one of their own would take his life and those of his family. The townspeople see a little of themselves and their struggles in Luke, a homegrown farmer who spent his whole life in Kiewarra. They can’t help but wonder how far they themselves are away from snapping – but instead of taking their anger and frustration out on one another, they turn on Aaron. He’s threatened, and they attempt to drive him out of town. With only an old friend and a police sergeant from the next town on his side, Aaron must find out what happened to Luke and his family, and in the process, unearth the secrets surrounding the death of Ellie over a decade earlier.
The Dry is an almost flawless debut – a teasing, intricate page-turner, which suffers only slightly from a lack of detailed background characters. The townspeople, other than a few central characters, are haphazard caricatures. Their territorial behaviour makes sense in the context of a small town suffering from drought and loss, but the source of their anger isn’t examined at all. As someone who grew up in a similar town (albeit on the other side of Australia) I know these people – I know they exist and I understand their suffering. To examine them further would have added more depth, otherwise this novels feels at times like a view of the country from the air-conditioned comfort of an office in Melbourne. But for the most part The Dry has a lot in common with the best Australian fiction, where the desolate landscape takes on the role of a central character, defining and controlling everything that happens in a town that is both expansive and claustrophobic.
Harper’s debut has won rave reviews in newspapers from Sydney to New York, with a couple of big names in Hollywood rumoured to be interested in the film rights. It’s not hard to see why – The Dry is a twist on the current domestic noir trend that is taking the world by storm. It’s already been translated into a couple of languages, and has been called the next Gone Girl. As suspicious as I always am of such comparisons, I’m certain that those who enjoyed any of the much-hyped thrillers with ‘girl’ in the title will find much of the same to love in The Dry.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars