Drought in Oz, Drought in Maine The Dry – Jane Harper The Stars are Fire – Anita Shreve

Australia is the land of drought, but one doesn’t usually associate the far north-eastern state of Maine, in the US, with that climatic affliction. But a dry spell, with serious consequences, occurred in the autumn, or should I say fall, of 1947. The land became tinder arid, seeing forest fires break out, soon raging beyond control. 200,000 acres of the state burned, whole towns and half of Arcadia National Park were lost, as were the lives of sixteen souls. 2500 were rendered homeless. The events at Shreve’s Bar Harbor, in ‘The Stars are Fire’, put me in mind of the happenings at Dunalley, in the south of my island, only a few years back. In fact, the scenario the author conjures of the ’47 conflagration with the Holland family sheltering on the beach bought back the iconic image of a mother and her children, attempting to escape from the flames in armpit deep water, under the little Tassie town’s jetty. That family survived; as did Grace Holland and her little ones, but only just. The effects of the drought and the resulting wildfires are, though, the main focus of the novel. Throughout we wonder what happened to her ‘difficult’ hubby. He was on the other side of the town fighting back the flames. Gene was last seen walking towards them as his colleagues fled. Naturally everyone assumes he perished, but no body was found. So Grace gets on with her life as best she can. A caring doctor and a mysterious piano man enter her orb as romantic possibilities – and then the unthinkable happens.

As with all Anita S’s output, ‘The Stars are Fire’ is immensely readable – it should be, she’s been successfully at it for long enough. It’s just not one of her best – it does stretch for plausibility as we wait for what most suspect will come to pass – and it does. That doesn’t mean it rings true.

Sadly Shreve is battling cancer and not for the first time. She trusts she will again beat it, but she was unable to travel to promote this, her latest work. She has been a reading staple of mine for decades so fingers crossed she survives to write on.

Jane Harper, in contrast, has just one novel to her name – but what an impact it has had. It’s won awards, been optioned by Hollywood and published (or about to be) in, at last count, twenty overseas countries. It’s truly a rip-snorter. It is perhaps not the greatest example of wordsmithery going around, but it is a yarn this reader couldn’t put down from get-go to last paragraph. One reviewer likened it to Peter Temple’s ‘The Broken Shore’ or Garry Disher’s ‘Bitter Wash Road’ as this country’s great crime novel of recent times. As I haven’t read these, I’ll throw in Craig Silvey’s ‘Jasper Jones’ or, another stunning debut, Holly Throsby’s ‘Goodwood’. Both are set, like ‘The Dry’ in parched and thirsty country towns.

In Harper’s offering it’s Kiewarra, ravaged by an endless drought, with the local men and women on the land at their wit’s end about how they’re going to make it through till the rains come. One, Luke Hadley, guns down his wife and all bar one of his kids before putting a rifle to his head in a paddock. It’s thought to be a cut and shut murder/suicide – that is until city cop, Aaron Falk, turns up for the funeral of his childhood friend. He starts digging and it all doesn’t quite add up. As far as the locals are concerned he already has a cloud over his head. You see, he too was once a local and left town after another of his former mates, this time a girl, disappeared in mysterious circumstances. It again is a presumed suicide. Before long there’s a whole range of motives and possibilities concerning the two, perhaps in some way, linked events. Our jaded (aren’t they always?) returned policeman tries to nut his way through it all and eventually a culprit emerges, but it’s an enjoyably convoluted process. Just when you think he’s nailed it, up pops another prospective murderer. I must admit I didn’t pick it – but looking back there were clues dotted along the way.

This is a story well told and in Aaron Falk Harper has a protagonist worth a few more whodunits. Her sophomore publication, ‘Force of Nature’, due October ’17, again features Falk investigating the disappearance of a whistle blower. As for Harper, I reckon she will become a real force of nature herself on the Australian writing scene.

Anita Shreve’s website – http://anitashrevebooks.com/

Jane Harper’s website – http://janeharper.com.au/

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