Two brothers meet at the border of their vast cattle properties under the unrelenting sun of outback Queensland.
They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old, no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron. The Bright family’s quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish. Something had been troubling Cameron. Did he lose hope and walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects…
The Lost Man is Jane Harper’s third novel and is not part of her Aaron Falk series, although he does get a cheeky mention at one point. I actually pre-ordered this book without reading the blurb because I enjoyed Harper’s previous books so much and she is now an auto-buy for me. The story begins with Cameron’s body being discovered by his two brothers, Nathan, the eldest Bright brother, and Bub the youngest one. Both are immediately confused by their brother’s death as nothing about it makes any sense. All three brothers were born in the outback and they learned how to survive from an early age so there is no way Cameron would have taken a walk in the extreme heat without taking the necessary precautions.
The discovery of Cameron’s body by the grave of an unknown stockman who died in the 19th century immediately adds a supernatural element which made me think the book was going to head that way, however that wasn’t the case at all but it certainly looms large for much of the story. The grave seems to be one of many dotting the landscape of the outback and Harper explains how the deceased were often buried where they died due to the harsh conditions. Some of these graves have become urban legends and the stockman’s grave has always held a fascination for the Bright brothers. Cameron has a framed painting he once did of the place on the wall of the family home. The painting unsettles everyone who looks at it and it seems to become even more sinister after Cameron’s death.
The implication Cameron may have chosen to end his own life does not sit well with his family and it certainly seems out of character with the man they remember, however this changes over time as we start to learn about a different Cameron. Most of the story is told from the point of view of the eldest brother, Nathan, who has become increasingly estranged from his family over the past five years after a nasty divorce. Nathan actually lives on the neighbouring station which used to be part of their father’s land but in outback terms that means he lives a few hours away. Nathan has become the town’s pariah after breaking the ultimate rule of the outback by leaving his father-in-law stranded by the side of the road unaware he was actually suffering from a stroke. Ever since then, Nathan has become increasingly isolated from everyone he knows, however Cameron’s death forces him back into the family fold.
The family dynamic is a complicated one as Nathan once dated Cameron’s wife, Ilsa, and is obviously still in love with her. On the surface, Ilsa appears every inch the grieving widow but as the layers are peeled back we learn Cameron was less than an ideal husband. Many of the grievances between the brothers hearken back to the time their abusive father was still alive and in some respects the shadow of his grave looms just as large as that of the stockman. I don’t want to reveal too much more about what is going on within the family as it is better to read it for yourself.
As with the previous two books, Harper absolutely nails the setting and her descriptions of life in the outback are breathtaking. My only knowledge of Australia’s outback was gained watching television shows and movies, however Harper goes into incredible detail about how living there can have a serious affect on mental health. We get to see this firsthand with Nathan whose solitariness has put him straight to the top of the district nurse’s suicide watch list and there are times when Nathan describes how he feels the outback calling to him. Danger is always present in the shape of searing heat, dehydration, poisonous snakes, dust storms and seasonal flooding which can leave you stranded for weeks at a time. When you add in the severe drought that is happening just now, it makes you admire the resilience of the people who choose to live there.