The Survivors by Jane Harper

Guilty secrets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The SurvivorsWhen Keiran Elliot returns to the small beachside town of Evelyn Bay in Tasmania, he brings along the grief and guilt that have never left him since a tragic incident there several years before when he was still a teenager. Keiran and his partner, Mia, who also grew up in the town, have returned to visit Keiran’s parents – Brian, now suffering from dementia and about to be moved into a care home, and Verity, still also struggling with the after-effects of that incident. No sooner are they home than another tragedy rocks the town, when the body of a young woman is found on the beach. As the investigation into her death proceeds, memories of those earlier events are stirred up among the townsfolk, and old secrets begin to be revealed.

As always, Jane Harper’s greatest strength is in her settings, each one different but always sharing a feeling of isolation and claustrophobia. Evelyn Bay is one of those small towns where everyone thinks they know everyone else’s business and where every small incident is worthy of note. In summer the town is crowded with tourists, there for the ocean. But when the story begins the season has just finished and the only people left are the year-round residents, most of whom have known each other all their lives.

Although there is a mystery – more than one, in fact – at the heart of the book, the major theme is how grief and guilt can impact both individuals and a community. I’ll hold my hands up and say this is not a theme I’m fond of – it appears in a lot of contemporary crime fiction and, even when its as well done as it is in this one, it changes the focus away from the detection and solving of the crime, which is primarily what I read crime fiction for, and makes the tone gloomy and depressing rather than intriguing and entertaining. I don’t think this novel is “fair play” – the solution seems to come out of nowhere, and frankly there could have been any number of equally credible solutions on the information available to the reader. Written in the third person, it’s told mainly from Keiran’s perspective, so the reader knows no more than he about what the police may have uncovered. Again this makes it feel less like a mystery novel and more like an exploration of the impact of a crime on the people affected by it. So from that point of view, I found it all rather unsatisfying.

However, the quality of Harper’s writing and her excellent characterisation keep it very readable. After a very slow start, with far too much of the “what happened that day long ago” faux suspense stuff for my liking, Harper finally reveals what did happen that day and then happily the pace picks up. She gives a very believable depiction of how quickly gossip and suspicion spread through a small community, and how social media allows people to make anonymous allegations that can lead to a lot of hurt. She also shows how the pressure of being known by everyone can add to feelings of guilt or make suspicion feel overwhelming – there’s no escape to the welcome anonymity that can be found in big cities. Harper doesn’t rely on unbelievable twists – every character behaves in ways that feel psychologically in tune with the personality she creates for them, which means that the solution, even if it does all happen a little too conveniently, is entirely credible and feels emotionally true.

Jane Harper
Jane Harper

I struggled to get into it in the beginning, but once I did I found it quite absorbing. Keiran, Mia and their baby daughter make a kind of triple character – together they are more than the sum of their parts, so to speak. The town takes on its own persona, as does the ocean which has given so much to the townspeople but has also been the source of tragedy over the years. And there’s a kind of coming of age aspect to it, too, as Keiran finds himself, now an adult and a father, reassessing his own youth and his understanding of his family and friends. For me, there’s too much emphasis on the role of grief and not enough actual mystery-solving for it to have become a favourite, but that’s a subjective viewpoint – it’s very good at what it’s setting out to be.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

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52 thoughts on “The Survivors by Jane Harper

  1. I can understand how there could be gaps for you approaching this story from the perspective of a crime mystery. I was drawn into the story by the atmosphere Harper creates through her settings and the social history and the depth of her characterisation. I did appreciate it as a ‘novel’, I think, perhaps more than a mystery novel. For me, The Survivors didn’t have the “lift-off”, the surprise of the unfamiliar setting and engagement with some very human but lighter characters that The Dry had.

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    • I think there’s a real crossover at the moment between crime and what we would normally think of as ‘novels’, and I’m sure that’s partly why I’ve gone off contemporary crime so much. This may well have worked better for me if there had been no mystery, or at least no present day murder. It felt as if there should be an investigation happening, but that aspect never really took off. I’m thinking crime fiction should probably mostly be told from the perspective of the detective or amateur investigator whereas novels should be from the perspective of those involved, if that makes sense. But it’s all subjective – plenty of people love the crossover aspect.

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    • Thank you! yes, it’s definitely me who’s out of synch with contemporary crime at the moment – too often they feel like novels rather than mysteries to me. And since I read a lot of novels, I’m really looking for something different when it comes to crime. But I can quite see why so many people enjoy this crossover style and Harper does it very well…

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  2. Harper really does do a brilliant job creating atmosphere and depicting settings, doesn’t she, FictionFan? And I like the way she draws characters, too. You make an interesting point about the focus of the book (on grief, loss, and so on). I’ve read some that are excellent novels, and some that…aren’t. For me, personally, I like to have a solid focus on the mystery at hand, but I don’t like wooden, incomplete characters, either. I suppose I’m a tough customer; I like a balance of both.

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    • She does – her settings always become like a character in their own right. Mulling it over, I think I expect crime novels to be shown to the reader from the perspective of the detective rather than from the people involved – not a hard and fast rule, but sometimes they get so involved with telling how the situation is making the characters feel they lose sight of the fact that there should be an investigation, clues, and so on. It’s simply a style preference though, and this kind of crossover into fiction territory seems to work for plenty of people.

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    • Her settings are undoubtedly her main strength – she does them so well they become like characters in their own right. I still think her first book, The Dry, was her best, but all of them have been well worth reading…

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  3. Oddly enough, I think I would probably quite like the things you weren’t so keen on here, though the slow start sounds potentially annoying. I wonder if it has maybe been targeted wrongly? If you weren’t expecting a mystery as such, you might not have felt quite so short changed.

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    • I do think there’s a kind of crossover at the moment between what I think of as a crime novel and what has traditionally been seen more as a ‘novel’, and I know that works for loads of people. I’m a traditionalist, though, and prefer them as separate genres, each with their own conventions. For me, crime should be focused mainly on the investigation and the investigators, but it’s simply a personal preference thing. Harper is excellent at this mixed style though.

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    • I loved The Dry and actually think that’s the reason I’m always just a little disappointed with her other books – my expectations are too high going in. It’s a pity because she is excellent at what she does – it’s just not quite my idea of what a crime novel should be…

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  4. Very detailed and honest review, thank you for that! I also struggle when grief is introduced in this genre. If it’s done well I don’t mind it as much however it’s such a sensitive topic that it almost always takes away from the main plot.

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    • Thank you! Yes, it’s one of the main reasons I’m not so keen on contemporary crime any more – they seem to be straying into territory that makes them feel more like main stream fiction, and really I look to crime to be an entertainment primarily. All a matter of personal preference, though, and she handles it well.

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  5. I quite like a focus on community and grief as a theme, but I agree they’re in danger of being overdone. Maybe its because contemporary crime I prefer on screen and those things work well televised. Reading crime I’m definitely with you – a good old-fashioned puzzle please!

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    • Yes, there’s much less of a demarcation between crime fiction and contemporary fiction now, and while I can see why it works for a lot of people, I really prefer crime fiction to be entertaining primarily – leave the angst to the contemporary fiction! Thank goodness for vintage… 😀

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  6. I still have The Dry waiting in my Kindle. I really need to get to it first. (though it sounds like that might be starting with her best one!)

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    • I definitely think The Dry is head and shoulders above the rest of her stuff, and I always get the impression I’m not alone in that. It must be difficult when your first book creates such expectations that your readers always feel slightly disappointed with your later novels…

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    • Modern crime is very much moving into contemporary fiction territory these days, which works for lots of people, but not for others. Personally I prefer an old-fashioned straightforward mystery, but horses for courses… and she does it very well.

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    • I feel grief and guilt are mostly more suited to contemporary fiction. For me, crime should be about a mystery, first and foremost, and should be entertaining rather than harrowing. But that’s why I’m out of synch with modern crime fiction!

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  7. I loved this one, stellar setting and atmosphere as usual, great characters – all believable. I’m glad you warmed to it by the end, but I get what you’re saying about how it felt more like “fiction” than “crime.”

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    • She is great at what she does, so I can quite see why you love it. My own preference in crime fiction is for an entertaining mystery-solving experience, and leave the more serious stuff to the fiction writers, but I know it’s me who’s out of step with the way modern crime fiction is developing…

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  8. Confession, I only read your first paragraph because I’ve got this on my bookshelf waiting to be read. I need to move it up the list, but have too many other books to get through first.
    Which reminds me, I collected my copy of The Silver Darlings today and expect to start reading it next week 🙂

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    • I suspect you’ll enjoy this one more than I did – she does it very well, and it’s only my own preference for a more traditional kind of mystery that stops me loving her books wholeheartedly.

      Hurrah!! You can let me know once you start it how long you think you’ll want to read and review it, and then I’ll announce a new date on the blog. Really must write my review soon… 😉

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      • You might be right. I love the sense of recognition and belonging I get from her characters and settings, but I also like the way her stories reveal the mystery/issue.
        We’re expecting sunshine in Melbourne all weekend and my plan is to spend a few hours today and tomorrow reading The Silver Darlings while sitting in the sun 🙂
        You’ve had a long wait. I can’t believe you haven’t written your review yet, I would have to re-read the book after this long!

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        • I always enjoy books about my country for the same reason and she really has a talent for making her settings completely believable – hope you enjoy it!

          Haha, I’m hoping I took copious notes at the time! I’ve let a few books fall behind with reviews and some of them will probable never get them now, but if worst comes to worst I’ll skim through the last few chapters again – that should be enough to remind me. I wonder what you’ll think of it… Shall I put it in for, say , Monday 14th June? Or would you like another week or two?

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  9. There’s a lot to like about Harper. Settings, atmosphere, that small town vibe … she does all of that extremely well. But somehow it’s never quite enough to satisfy my fickle mood and she never seems to manage to get anywhere near the level of the fabulous The Dry.

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    • I know – I keep hoping for another The Dry too, and I’m sure that’s partly why I always find her books a bit disappointing. She’s great at the settings as you say, but not so good at the plotting of the mystery element, and that’s just as important.

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  10. This does sound interesting – I don’t read a tonne of contemporary crime because it’s often so dark and grim, but I like the sound of the well-drawn characters. It does bother me when a crime novel doesn’t turn out to be “fair play” though – I like it when I get to the end of the novel and am surprised by the outcome, but looking back can see all the clues that I missed.

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    • Yes, that’s my problem with contemporary crime too. Primarily I read it for entertainment as a kind of break from the more harrowing stuff of contemporary fiction, so when it crosses over too much then it stops feeling like crime fiction to me. The solution of this one made sense, but I could think of at least two other solutions that would have made equal sense on the information given, and that suggests the plotting isn’t as strong as it should be…

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  11. I’m right there with you, FF. I want a crime novel to focus on the crime, who-dun-it, how, why, and how it’s solved … never mind all the rest. And to come up with a solution that’s not “fair play”? Well, that’s another of my beefs. I’ll probably pass on this one, despite the good writing. I guess it’s good we have so many options in reading material these days, huh?!

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    • Yes, there’s a kind of a move towards blurring the line between crime and mainstream fiction at the moment, but I really prefer the traditional crime novel – mystery, investigation, solution. And with this one, I could think of at least another two solutions that would have worked with the information given, and that makes me feel the plotting isn’t as tight as it should be in a mystery novel.

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  12. I learned the concept of ‘fair play’ mysteries from you (for which I am super grateful for, because I reference it in my own blogs and reviews regularly now), but now that I’m aware of it, I realize that I really don’t like it when novels AREN’T fair play-it feels like cheating, and I get annoyed by it.

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    • Ha, it doesn’t get used so much for contemporary crime but I think that’s a pity because it makes it much better if the reader has at least a chance of working out the solution. Jane Casey tends to be “fair play” and that’s partly why I like her books so much.

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  13. Ive seen a few reviews of this book now which are all pretty much saying that it’s nowhere as good as The Dry. Must be so hard for an author to have an outstanding success early on – everything else is measured against that.

    I’m ok with the guilt/ grief aspect though it is a bit overdone so if its not well handled, then I’d be less than happy

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    • Yes, I think having a major success with a debut novel is a real poisoned chalice. I’ve enjoyed all of her books to a degree, but The Dry still stands out above them all. It seems to me as if she really wants to write fiction rather than crime, and I kinda wish she’d do that – it’s always the crime plot element that lets her books down a little.

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