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When 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.
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.