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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Flatiron Books, 352 pages, $27.99

“A Stockman’s Grave” should be an alternate title, because the activities in “The Lost Man” revolve around both the grave and the metaphor it becomes for Jane Harper’s central mystery. Here is her description of where the grave is located — if you haven’t read Harper’s other books, see if you can guess where her story is located:

[T]he landmark was known to locals — all sixty-five of them, plus one hundred thousand head of cattle — simply as the stockman’s grave.
Months, up to a year, even, could slip away without a single visitor passing by, let alone stopping to read the faded inscription or squint west into the afternoon sun. Even the cattle didn’t linger. The ground was typically sandy and sparse for eleven months of the year and hidden under murky floodwater for the rest. … So the grave stood mostly alone, next to a thin, three-wire cattle fence. The fence stretched a dozen kilometers east to a road and a few hundred west to the desert, where the horizon was so flat it seemed possible to detect the curvature of the earth. It was a land of mirages, where the few tiny trees in the far distance shimmered and floated on non-existent lakes.

Did you guess the outback of Australia? Congratulations if you did. Jane Harper evokes the aridity and loneliness and alone-ness of that area so very, very well. Lightly littered with words like “g’day,” “mate,” and “jackaroo,” the book’s language seems natural, not clichéd. Echoing one of the central elements of her first novel, “The Dry,” Harper gives us a parched and dangerous environment in which it seems remarkable that anyone has managed to live.

It should be no surprise that the person whose dead body immediately appears in “The Lost Man” died from exposure. Cameron Bright, a rancher with a wife and two young daughters, is found about five and a half miles from his vehicle, still on his ranch but in the middle of nowhere. He didn’t last long in the heat of the sun.

Harper describes the fascinating contents of outback vehicles: water, water, water, food, a working radio, air conditioning, a cooler, extra tires, more water, tools. The environment is not your friend, mate. And survival is serious business. Harper also describes the vital nature of stocking adequate household supplies, too, since many homes could become isolated for weeks by floodwaters. Everything needs forethought.

Communication is also vital. If you live alone on a ranch, you need someone to know you’re alive, or still alive. Cameron’s brother, Nathan, lives next door. Next door in this case means a three-hour drive away. He has chosen to live alone after his wife left him, taking their young son with her. Even his beloved dog recently left him, the victim of poisoning, Nathan believes. And so Nathan has existed with little human company for ten years, during the last six of which he has not gone much into the small town of Balamara because of an incident, eventually described by Harper. Nathan also seldom visits Cameron and Ilse and their two daughters. Liz and Bub, Nathan’s mother and brother, live with Cam and co-manage the ranch. Nathan’s family has insisted on installing a pair of buttons, one of which Nathan must press each day: “okay” or “not okay.”

As the story opens, Nathan is being visited by his now sixteen-year-old son, Xander, on a Christmas break. Nathan’s relationship with his ex is fraught and pricked by that incident that occurred six years earlier and resulted in the town shunning Nathan. Together they drive to where Cameron’s body was found, at the stockman’s grave.

Throughout the book, Harper gives us one version after another of the story behind the stockman’s grave, including how the ghostly remains of the stockman haunt the land and cause havoc. Certainly one of Cam’s young daughters seems haunted by that story. As a young man Cam painted a picture of the grave and the surrounding land. It won an award and acclaim, but it came to naught, as Cam settled down to manage the ranch and gave up painting. In real life and in Cam’s picture, there is a mysterious element to the stockman’s grave, a conjuring of the isolation of the land and the natural silence. But does the marker represent something more malevolent, as well?

Nathan is our hero, assisted by his young son. Their relationship is a tentative one, since Xander doesn’t see Nathan much. But there is a yearning to know each other, to overcome whatever difficulties caused their separation. Harper presents their vulnerabilities very touchingly. Both Nathan and Xander are convinced beyond what reason would tell them that Cameron did not meet his death by suicide, the official cause of death.

Jane Harper paces her story so well. This is not a “thriller,” but it is a page-turner, if only so the characters and the environment’s lure can be better comprehended. Seeing Harper’s resolution of what turns out to be many storylines is like watching a stone drop and following the ripples out and out.

This is a champion of a book. MBTB star!

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