The Dry by Jane Harper has all of the quirks and devices that a crime thriller needs. Set in the small country town of Kiewarra, Australia where the heat is exhausting and water is scarce, a tragedy shakes the community to its core. It seems, on the surface, to be a textbook case of murder suicide, Luke Hadler murders his wife and six year old son, before turning the gun on himself.
The problem is, Luke was an upstanding citizen, a family man and a hard worker. Sure, he had a dark streak to him that often annoyed and frustrated his friends while growing up. Jane Harper manages to set in motion a trail of events that led up to a face paced, anxiety driven climax, and from the very beginning, she is able to plant the seed, the question, for the reader – Luke was many things, but a murderer?
Aaron Falk comes back to town for his best friend’s funeral and it is clear that being home is something he hadn’t ever wanted to do. He’d made a life for himself in Melbourne, when his father had moved them there twenty years ago and being back on familiar soil, a place that he and his father had been chased out of, is a unnerving feeling.
Harper’s narrative is inviting and gripping, once you’re in, you’re in for the rest of the novel. Smooth writing, along with imaginative prose and an ability to craft eccentric and down to earth characters, is definitely something Harper pulls off. As the town turns on its self, questioning friend, father and neighbour, the reader too begins to question every one Falk comes into contact with.
At first, it seems clear – Luke was a strange child who lived for the fast exhilaration of taking risks, he had caved under the pressure of drought and poverty, killing his family and himself. But as stated, Harper is quick to take the reader away from that assumption.
The town of Kiewarra has its dark secrets and many come out of the woodwork the more Falk and Sergeant Raco investigate, which forces Falk to think and come to terms with something that had happened in his childhood; the death of one of his friend’s and a girl he had fallen in love with, perhaps before he knew what love was, Ellie Deacon. Her death was pinned on him and his father, due to a note found in her pocket when her body was discovered, it read Falk. She had been bright faced and determined to escape the shadow of her father and his vile ways, but her journey was cut short when she drowned the lake she and her friends used to hang out at.
Most people believed it had been a suicide but there were those, particularly, Ellie’s father and her cousin, Grant Dow, who believe it was Aaron. Harper manages to convince the reader that it was Mal Deacon and his nephew who had killed Luke Hadler, due to their hatred of the Hadler family – perhaps out of revenge for what happened to Ellie, the Deacons’ were quick to blame Aaron, but also, Luke, who’s alibi at the time of Ellie’s death, was that he was with Aaron, shooting rabbits.
We are so invested in believing this that when Aaron confronts Mal Deacon, an old, sick man, the reader fails to see the other signs, we fail to see who the real murderer (of Luke, Karen and their son) is. In a shocking twist, Aaron uncovers the truth as to what happened the Hadler’s and Luke’s name is cleared. The town start to view Aaron differently, embarrassed by their actions – having driven him out of the town when he was younger, spreading rumours about him and making his stay in Kiewarra horrible – showing just how fake, delusional and narrow minded the town’s people are. And a couple of gruesome pages later, we find out that Mal killed his own daughter.
As much as I enjoyed this book, there was one part that bothered me. The abuse that Mal subjected his daughter to. The use of sexual violence was put there, in one scene, towards the end, as a plot device. Ellie was beaten by her father and that was enough for us to understand her hatred towards him, it was enough for us to see that he was a disgusting person, it was enough for us to understand her actions and her planning to leave.
However, there was one scene where he invades her space, climbing on top of her in her bed. She wakes and manages to push him off, but it is implied that he has, in her sleep, though she woke up, sexually abused her. This scene felt as though it was added last minute, as something to horrify us, which of course it does, but that is all it is there for – shock value.
It was unnecessary, if a writer is to write about such things, then it shouldn’t be used as shock value or as a plot device to push the story forwards, which is what happens here, as it is called the catalyst. But this demeans the victim, in this case Ellie, to nothing more than a ploy in the plot to show how horrible Mal is. We already know that, we already know he was a vile human being.
Sexual abuse is an extremely traumatising thing to happen to a person. In some cases, as Ellie’s is, the abuse ends in murder. It is not something to be taken lightly or brushed away, which is what happens in this novel. It is swept under the carpet as it were, there only for a couple of lines to horrify the reader and used as a plot point, rather than being treated with the importance it should be written with. It demeans survivors of this abuse and their experience, to little importance.
Therefore, as much as I would have liked to love this book a lot more, I cannot with Harper’s treatment of Ellie. When are novelists, script writers and so on, going to understand that rape is not something to be used as shock value?