Every fortnight, my daughter’s school assembly begins with an acknowledgment of country and ends with the singing of the national anthem.
It’s easy to sing Advance Australia Fair and not think about the words. Then you read a book like The Dry, and you start thinking.
The first verse of Advance Australia Fair is almost all about agriculture. There’s our ‘golden soil and wealth for toil’ and a land that ‘abounds in nature’s gifts of beauty rich and rare.’
This is the Australia that rode to wealth on the sheep’s back. An Australia where, in the bush, an honest day’s work produces an honest day’s wage.
An Australia which, quite frankly, no longer exists.
‘The bush’ may be our spiritual home (certainly the tourism videos like to present it as such) but it’s certainly not our economic one; agriculture now accounts for 3% of GDP. and for the last 20 years, our farmers have struggled under near constant drought conditions and it is this, the reality of life in the Australian bush that interests Jane Harper in The Dry. Not the Australia that was idealised in a song written last century, but the one that’s broken many a farmer’s heart and spirit.
In The Dry we meet a farming community in shock. Here’s what the back cover says..
Luke Hadler turns a gun on his wife and child, then himself. The farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily. If one of their own broke under the strain, well..
When Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, he is loath to confront the people who rejected him twenty years earlier. But when his investigative skills are called on, the facts of the Hadler case start to make him doubt this murder-suicide charge.
And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, old wounds are reopened. For Falk and his childhood friend Luke shared a secret … A secret Falk thought long-buried … A secret which Luke’s death starts to bring to the surface …
Sounds gripping, right? A typically suspenseful crime novel, you’re probably thinking. It is certainly that, and more. For what Harper achieves is not only present a ripping yarn, but a story that challenges the very notion of our ‘bush myth.’
Physically, Falk is an outsider to the bush with ‘skin the blue hue of skimmed milk for half the year and cancerous-looking cluster of freckles the rest..’ Physically, he doesn’t fit in, and mentally, he has moved on from his bush childhood. Returning to Kiewarra, he sees the dream of country living for what it is.
‘The idea had an enticing wholesome glow when it was weighed up from the back of a traffic jam or while crammed into a garden-less apartment. They all had the same visions of breathing fresh clean air and knowing their neighbours. The kids would eat home-gown vegies and learn the value of an honest day’s work.
On arrival, as the empty moving truck disappeared from sight, they gazed around and were always taken aback by the crushing vastness of the open land. The space was the thing that hit them first. There was so much of it. There was enough to drown in. To look out and see not another soul between you and the horizon could be a strange and disturbing sight.’
It’s pretty great writing, isn’t it?
In many ways, The Dry is that rare book that truly straddles the commercial/literary divide. It is no surprise, therefore, to learn the manuscript won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and has secured distribution into 20 countries. The Dry delivers a page-turning plot in visceral prose, with an undercurrent of having something profound to say about a nation that sings of ‘golden soil’ and ‘wealth for toil’ when in fact, in 21st century Australia, neither are guaranteed. And maybe they never were…
For more information about The Dry (including a free sample) visit Pan Macmillan
Great review and I agree that Harper does a great job with the extremes of outback Australia!
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