Her debut The Dry, which I reviewed here, was one of my standout books from last year as well as being a Sunday Times Bestseller, so I was very keen to read Jane Harper’s follow-up, Force of Nature, which is out today. Aaron Falk’s first case had taken him back to his childhood home and forced him to revisit a traumatic event from his past alongside the main case he stays in town to help investigate. I was interested to see where Jane Harper would take him next, and what the case would be: whether it would be as personal as his first. A missing hiker on a corporate retreat may not sound personal but it’s exactly that.
FIVE WENT OUT. FOUR CAME BACK…
Is Alice here? Did she make it? Is she safe? In the chaos, in the night, it was impossible to say which of the four had asked after Alice’s welfare. Later, when everything got worse, each would insist it had been them.
Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along the muddy track. Only four come out the other side. The hike through the rugged landscape is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and teach resilience and team building. At least that is what the corporate retreat website advertises.
Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a particularly keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing bushwalker. Alice Russell is the whistleblower in his latest case – and Alice knew secrets. About the company she worked for and the people she worked with.
Far from the hike encouraging teamwork, the women tell Falk a tale of suspicion, violence and disintegrating trust. And as he delves into the disappearance, it seems some dangers may run far deeper than anyone knew.
Force of Nature opens about six months after the events in The Dry took place. Despite that leaving him scarred, Federal Agent Aaron Falk is back at work in the federal investigation unit in Melbourne with his partner of three months, Carmen Cooper. The timing of Alice’s disappearance, together with a message Falk receives, compels them to visit the place where she disappeared: bushland that’s already been the scene of grisly events which captured the public’s imagination and could do without any further notoriety.
The story switches between Falk and Cooper’s questioning of Alice’s colleagues also on the retreat (against the background of the ongoing search for her) and the women’s retreat as it happened. This might frustrate readers who dislike flipping back and forth between two timelines but short chapters help ease the transitions, making them less noticeable. The structure’s ideal for any reader like me who wants to try and work out what happened, preferably before the detectives Falk and Cooper do.The reader has more information than the detectives investigating, not that this helps a great deal. Harper throws in enough false trails to keep you guessing throughout, the dynamic between the five women is in a state of flux despite some of their best efforts, and the witnesses appear sufficiently cagey or evasive to be unreliable. Who or what are they protecting with their witness accounts, and more importantly by what they withhold.
It’s fascinating to see how the women’s group starts off the hike, each with her own role, and how quickly their personalities rub up against each other and old grudges surface. I didn’t always feel as if I had enough of a handle on some of the characters in this book though, Lauren especially, and the men’s group on retreat served little purpose beyond facilitating a meeting at the first night’s camp, although it’s interesting to consider whether the book would have worked as well had the men’s group been the ones in trouble with the whistleblower among their number. Probably not.
Nature once again plays a huge role in Harper’s book, further compounding the women’s issues and problems. In The Dry, the characters’ were having to function in drought conditions; in Force of Nature, by contrast, they’re having to deal with being both cold and wet, and the oppression here comes from the bush and trees crowding in on them and the sense of being watched rather than the (literal and metaphorical) heat Falk faced in his homecoming novel, The Dry.
I’ve never been a fan but if ever there was a case against corporate retreats, this is it. But Force of Nature is about more than office politics unleashed in the wild; it’s about more complex formative relationships, those that endure, ones which can shape us or break us but either way will have a lasting impact. Force of Nature is about human nature as much as the more immediate nature the women lose themselves in, and is an interesting take on how we work and play together both in and out of the office and further back to our schooldays. Force of Nature shows us what happens when people go off course, when they’re lost and scared and takes them far from home. For Falk and the people he’s investigating, the question is can they find their way back. I enjoyed finding out over the two evenings I read this.
Force of Nature by Jane Harper is published here in the UK by Little, Brown and is available as an audiobook and ebook and in hardback from today. You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery. To find out more about Jane Harper and her books, visit her Author Website or follow her on Twitter.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a signed ARC of Force of Nature together with an ebook of it on NetGalley.
The Force of Nature blog tour started on Monday 5th and runs until Wednesday 14th February. These are my fellow bloggers taking part today: