Monday, 17 July 2017

Something I Read - The Dry by Jane Harper

I picked The Dry up to read on a plane journey. I chose it because I was pleased to see a best seller with an Australian setting. The story is supposed to take place in an unnamed Victorian town at the height of summer during a long drought.

A man who spent his childhood in the town - but has moved away to Melbourne to work as an investigator of financial crime in the police force - returns for the funeral of his childhood friend. Soon it becomes clear that the friend's death is not what it seems and the man must stay on to solve a crime. Meanwhile, in the background, is the memory of the death of another school friend long ago.

The plot is pretty good and consequently I did read to the end, to find out what happened. I was disappointed though as the characters are very sketchy and thin, and the writer doesn't seem to really know Australia - or at least country Australia. To take just one of many examples, farmers are described as "the farmers" as if they were "the cattle" and reportedly say to each other, "It'll rain soon", which farmers in Australia in a drought never do. They have learned the hard way.

More importantly, most Australian country towns are rather beautiful, if they are as old as this one is supposed to be - but there is not a glimpse of an architectural detail, no hint of what an Australian country town looks like in the book. Nor is there more than the barest hint of what Australia smells like, (it is, in the nicest possible way, a smelly place - that is, it is easily evoked by smell, especially in summer: of heat, of dust, of distant sheep, of the bush; but the only smell mentioned is "eucalyptus" [what kind of Pommie nonsense is that - we call it gum, don't you know] and it is referred to as a "tang", which seems far too sharp and lemony to me; gums are almost smoky in their scent.

I. may be expecting too much depth from a best seller - but detective novels are meant to be a solid literary form, not just potboilers. On a stylistic level, The Dry doesn't match up to many competing contemporary crime novels; the writing is hackneyed and the characterisation and description lacks any depth.

I don't suppose most people pick up the book to find out what rural society is like in Australia but, for those who might, I'd recommend The Idea of Perfection, Kate Grenville's wonderful, funny, poignant evocation of small town life instead. That is a really good book. The Dry is a thin entertainment. The most intriguing thing about it is the choice of Whitlam for a character's name.

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