By David R. Altman

While best-selling author Jane Harper has not quite created the sort of page-turning drama of her previous novels, her latest, The Survivors, is a still a first-rate mystery about a murder in a small seaside town in Tasmania.

Harper, whose debut novel The Dry (2017) has sold more than a million copies worldwide and was later made into an enormously popular movie in Australia, has released her fourth novel in less than four years.

In The Survivors, the reader is tantalizingly introduced to a 12-year-old secret that occurred during a raging storm in the small Tasmanian town of Evelyn Bay (Tasmania is an Australian island state located about 150 miles off southern coast of the mainland).

Harper, a former business writer turned author, weaves a layered tale of two families that have known each other most of their lives.

The story revolves around Evelyn Bay native Kieran Elliott, who has returned to his hometown with his girlfriend Mia and their infant daughter Audrey.

The couple, who live in Sydney, returns to the island to help Kieran’s mother Verity move his dad Brian into an assisted living facility. The father, whose erratic behavior drives a secondary storyline, suffers from dementia.

A dark, recurring theme that portends the book’s riveting climax, deals with the death of Kiernan’s brother in the deadly storm that rocked the seaside town 12 years earlier.

As the story unfolds, a young woman turns up dead on the same beach where another tragedy—a tragedy that gives the book its title--occurred during the storm. The complexity of Harper’s storytelling is second only to the author’s infamous use of the Australian landscape as an essential part of her novels.

You could almost feel the intensity of the Australian drought in the fictional town of Kiewarra in The Dry, and the rugged, Giralang ranges in the corporate retreat gone horribly wrong in Force of Nature (my favorite of her books) and the brutal terrain of the Australian outback featured in The Lost Man.

In The Survivors, Harper chooses the remote island of Tasmania as the atmospheric centerpiece of her story. The rough coastline is paramount to the novel’s critical developments, as Harper describes a scene involving two of the book’s central characters:

“The rocks arched over them, mostly above head height, sometimes lower. The damp sand that formed the soft, wide path repaired itself quickly, their footprints vanishing almost as soon as they were made.”

Harper, 38, was born in Australia and educated in England before returning to her homeland after graduating college.

She told a TEDx audience that she approaches her writing with a kind of “fearlessness.”

“It’s really hard to channel creative energy into a completely empty space and expect something coherent to form,” said Harper. “But if you focus on the technical aspects, and you use those practical skills you already have you can build a framework that serves as a basis for your creative ideas to build upon.”

Harper, a mother of two, credits three things that have worked for her: motivation, time management and mastering her “technical ability”.

“Technical ability is something that can be improved through training and practice,” Harper told the TEDx audience. “It’s misguided to think that all the natural talent you are born with is all you need to get by.”

If you have read any of Harper’s books, you know both the beauty and intensity of her writing. And the dialogue, featuring often-feuding family members which seem to comprise the primary characters in her stories, is both dramatic and memorable.

In The Survivors, the impact of multiple family tragedies provides a collapse among critical relationships, leading to tensions that build toward a breaking point you may not see coming.

If you’re not quite ready to venture out after your Covid vaccine, get Harper’s book and you’ll have an escape to Tasmania that will keep your mind off the pandemic—and most anything else that is keeping you up at night.

David R. Altman writes about books and writers. He is a Hoschton resident and a member of the National Books Critics Circle and the American Academy of Poets. He can be reached at altmandavidr@gmail.com or at www.davidraltman.com

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