Five women go hiking in the Australian bush – only four come back

Review: Vivien Horler

Force of Nature, by Jane Harper (Little, Browne)

force of natureEvery aspiring novelist wants to be like Jane Harper.

The British-born Australian journalist decided she wanted to write a novel, but told an interviewer at the Sydney Morning Herald there was a snag: she didn’t know how to. So she signed up for an online novel-writing course in late 2014, and finished her first draft on New Year’s Eve of that year.

Seeking more feedback, she entered it in the unpublished manuscript category of the 2015 Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards – and won the $15 000 (about R150 000) prize.

Immediately interested publishers and agents were on to her, and the result was The Dry, a fast-paced and convoluted murder mystery set in a blisteringly hot, drought-stricken small Australian town.

It made the London Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller list, won the coveted Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger Award 2017, and is being turned into a movie after the actress Reese Witherspoon bought the rights.

She also earned enough to give up her day job on Melbourne’s Herald Sun.

Now she has published her second novel, Force of Nature, with a third on the way.

Force of Nature’s setting couldn’t be more different than that of The Dry – most of the action takes place in rugged hill country over a stormy and drenched few days – but the story is just as readable.

A company holds a team-building exercise in which five city women – all of them reluctantly– go on a four-day hike. Early on they take a wrong turning, which means they miss the depots where their food has been stored.

A group of men from the same company are also hiking through the bush on a slightly different route, and while they turn up on time for the final-day noon rendezvous, the women do not. The alarm is raised, and rangers are sent out hunting for them. Hours later, well into night, the women turn up. One is bleeding and one is missing.

Federal Agent Aaron Falk, lead character in The Dry, turns up in Force of Nature too, along with his partner Carmen Cooper. They have a particular interest in finding the missing woman – they happen to be investigating the company in question for money laundering, and missing Alice Russell is their whistleblower.

The narrative unfolds in two parallel threads: the women’s hike and their decreasing trust in one another; and the story of the police officers’ investigation.

British crime writer Sarah Hilary describes Force of Nature as “Lord of the Flies in the Australian outback, with grown women in place of schoolboys. I loved every chilling moment of it.”

I thoroughly enjoyed it too – and suspect it too will make a great movie.

  • A version of review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday August 12 2018.



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