By: Kathryn Rosko, Volunteer
“Force of Nature” is a new suspense novel by Jane Harper, the Australian journalist-turned-author of the debut hit “The Dry.” If the idea of team building with some of your work colleagues inspires dread, here is a book that shows you all the ways it can go wrong. Seriously wrong.
Two teams—the men’s and women’s teams—from BaileyTennants, a boutique, family-owned accounting firm, set out on a corporate retreat in the Australian bushland. Imagine Outward Bound in the true middle of nowhere, with cameo appearances by kookaburras and carpet python snakes. Fun, right? The rub comes when the women’s team fails to show up at the end of the weekend. Things get worse when 4 of the 5 women finally reappear hours later, injured and hungry, and the missing woman, Alice Russell, is someone secretly working undercover at BaileyTennants to provide copies of contracts to police who are investigating charges of money laundering.
One of the police officers is Aaron Falk, a character from Harper’s “The Dry.” (Beyond this character, the books aren’t linked and each can be read as a stand-alone.) Falk gets involved when he receives a partial voicemail from Alice in the middle of the night and finds out just hours later that she is missing. The chapters alternate between the events befalling the women’s team during the 4-day hike from hell, which includes boss and part owner of BaileyTennants Jill Bailey, twin sisters Bree and Beth McKenzie, and Lauren Shaw; and with the ongoing pursuit of finding Alice Russell by Aaron and his partner Carmen Cooper.
The chapters featuring the women’s descent into the bushland chronicle getting lost, losing equipment, fighting hunger, and finally boiling over with sheer pent-up frustration and rage—some deep-seated and years old, as readers come to discover—and are taut and compelling. Rumors of the son of a notorious serial killer still living nearby, as well as the discovery of a well-hidden and sinister cabin in the bush provide suspense from the outside. But truly, the women’s relationships with each other provide a fair amount of suspense all on their own. Alice is a type A alpha who looks out for herself and regularly ruffles the feathers of her colleagues. But she is experienced and resourceful. The story the women tell of her disappearance is that Alice headed out on her own, eager to get back to civilization and deal with some problems happening with her daughter on the home front. Did she get lost, make it out, or have another fate befall her? All possible scenarios are explored. Along the way, the reader discovers important details that flesh out the other characters. It turns out that Lauren and Alice were at school together, though perhaps not school chums, and their daughters now attend the same school. Twins Beth and Bree have a complicated relationship with some past wounds that may not be entirely healed. And the boss, Jill, has regrets about towing the company line but feels trapped in the family business. Harper provides lots of motives for bad behavior but also keeps the reader guessing.
The chapters with Aaron and Carmen are slightly less gripping but round out the full picture and keep the momentum moving forward at a steady clip. As the partners receive pressure from the top to “get the contracts” to prove money laundering, it makes the search for Alice slightly less altruistic than it may seem on the surface. The trip to the bushland also brings up the past for Aaron who is forced to explore the guilt and regret surrounding his relationship with his deceased father, who regularly hiked in the same bushland—and often invited his son, who refused.
Well-constructed page-turners are satisfying to read, but the devil is in the details, especially at the end. Does the plot hold together? Do all the many threads—in this instance, quite literally—come together? The good news is that Harper has succeeded in ending the story well, and as the action comes to its conclusion, she delves into some more deeply-felt examinations on the effects of long-simmering childhood grudges and the existential consequences of realizing that children can become mirrors to their parents. Check out this fast-paced thriller for a good summer read, and perhaps even use it as ammunition the next time your boss suggests a team-building retreat.
Kathryn Rosko is the Director of Communications at a local independent school and a volunteer at the library. She lives in Pennington with her husband and two children.