It’s difficult to write a novel where none of the characters are unlikeable, an yet the story is still engaging enough that you’re hanging on til the end. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas was one such novel, and I was pleasantly surprise (after I was done loathing the characters) to discover another Australian author capable of such a feat.
Harper’s The Dry established Federal Detective Aaron Falk via his hometown in rural Australia, his history, his motivations, his demons. The books do not need to be read in order, but I would recommend it as Force of Nature makes passing references to the events if The Dry that help flesh out Falk.
The main story evolves around five women, all employees of BaileyTennant, a family accounting firm. Alice, Lauren, twins Beth and Bree and family member Jill Bailey all go into the woods in a team-building exercise for the ‘troubled’ employees; all but Alice come out, and all significantly worse for wear.
Naturally, sending ill-equipped staff who are already on tenterhooks out into the Australian bush goes about as well as you would expect it to, with basic mistakes being made from people who have limited-to-no experience in bushcraft. You know it’s not going to end well, and it speaks as much about BaileyTennant and its management as it does about the psyches of the five main women, none of women are particularly likeable. Beth, a recovering addict with a black mark that needs to be legally declared against her name is the immediate stand-out, although as time goes by, a lot of the shine goes off Bree, although I did find myself sympathising a little with her in terms of the forced interactions working with her sister engineered. It seemed incredibly problematic to have hired Beth, given her history with her sister (Bree was there first, the idea being that her stellar performance was a good idea to get a literal clone of her) and I wonder if this was an oversight of Harper’s or an intentional plot point, intended to demonstrate the poor management going on at BaileyTennant.
As the book goes on, it becomes clear that Jill, the so-called ‘team leader’ is ill equipped to handle the situation, either as a company boss or someone who can take control of a situation as things deteriorate. Alice quickly takes advantage of Jill’s poor leadership skills, although Alice herself lacks them; more aggressive than assertive, domineering than actually productive. Her actions are consistently selfish, using up resources for her own gain so when they’re actually needed, they’ve been used up.
The book switches back and forth between the women’s trials in the woods and the search and rescue efforts a few days later when four women have come back and Falk is on the case. Falk explores the antagonistic relationship Alice had between the four women, who all had a reason to, well… not exactly be sorry if something happened to her. As the book goes on, we see that all four women are deeply flawed, unlikeable even, although Alice and Beth are the initial contenders for ‘bad guy’. All five women bring a truckload of issues to what is a challenging situation to begin with, and all of them contribute to the terrifying circumstances they find themselves in, and worse, an utter lack of acknowledgement or remorse as to the havoc their actions have wreaked.
As I said earlier, it’s difficult to write a novel where all the main characters are unlikeable (this was a bookclub pick, and when discussing it with another member, she said she ‘had kinda hoped they would all die in the woods’.) And yet, I devoured it, wanting to know what happened and the consequences of five women who were weak or aggressive but never strong. The Dry was an engaging read and I had no idea who dunnit til they were named, but Force of Nature showed a sophomoric maturing of Harper as a writer, and an instalment I would highly recommend.