The words ‘corporate retreat’ would likely inspire trepidation in many people. Especially activities involving a three-day hike into the Australian bush. Imagine being in such close proximity to the people you work with, every minute of every day. It’s no wonder you might feel like killing each other by the end.
This is the intriguing premise of Force of Nature, the follow-up novel to author Jane Harper’s hugely successful, award-winning debut The Dry. Federal Agent Aaron Falk is back and this time he’s involved in a missing person case. Four women have returned late from a team building hike in the Giralang Ranges, east of Melbourne. They’re hurt, bleeding and crying for help. And there should be five of them. Alice Russell has gone missing after wandering into the bush alone.
Aaron and his new, not-quite-platonic partner, Carmen Cooper, have a personal interest in finding Alice – she’s the whistleblower helping them in a case against BaileyTennants’ chief executive, Daniel Bailey. Just before Alice went missing, Falk received a mysterious voice mail from her, and only two words stick out – ‘hurt her’. But who was she talking about?
The narrative alternates between Falk’s investigation into Alice’s disappearance, and the past few days following the women’s journey through the bush. There’s Jill Bailey, Daniel’s sister and chairwoman; Lauren Shaw, who knows Alice from school; and twins Bree and Beth McKenzie who have a rocky relationship. It soon becomes clear to the reader that each woman is choosing what information to share with police and what to keep hidden. Did one of them have something to do with Alice’s disappearance?
Just like an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive, things start to go downhill for the group after they take a wrong turn in the dense bushland. The more lost they become, the higher the tension amongst them, and the nastier Alice seems to get. Harper’s description of the bush – beautiful one minute and a beast the next – adds to the feeling of being trapped. In one scene the women stop to admire ‘a magnificent vista of rolling hills and valleys’ but then they are feeling ‘boxed in’ by the gum trees ‘very close and very tall, all around’. The stakes grow higher as survival instincts kick in – from a struggle for a drink of rainwater pooling in a tree to a violent brawl over a mobile phone. Meanwhile, the threat of notorious serial killer, Martin Kovac, looms over the group.
Readers have high expectations following successful debut novels and Harper has exceeded those expectations with Force of Nature. It’s good to learn more about Falk, who is still nursing the burnt hand he received in The Dry. We are given a glimpse into his home life and discover more about his uneasy relationship with his father as he uses his old walking maps to navigate the Giralang Ranges. These family relationships play a big role in Force of Nature, touching on the similarities and differences between siblings, and between parents and their children.
I started reading Force of Nature when the Audiobook I was listening to at the time failed to capture my attention. I was glad I made the switch. Force of Nature was compelling and entertaining from the first page. Harper has a talent for giving each character a strong purpose and here, everyone has a role to play in the terrible thing that has happened to Alice. Aaron Falk is a stalwart, brave and intelligent character who I hope to see more of. He’s just the kind of person you’d want to have with you on a corporate retreat.
Force of Nature by Jane Harper is published in Australia by Pan Macmillan.
For a moment, there was nothing but the strange hush of the bush and Beth looked up at the gum trees. Their bark hung off in slack strips like flayed skin.