A book-loving friend caught me after school a few weeks ago with this beautiful tome in her hand.
I snagged it quickly and brought it home anticipating an excellent read over the Easter weekend. I love a good who-dun-it thriller, and the cover of this book is just exceptional - wouldn't you agree? When I glanced through the first page I was even more excited: the writing was fabulous. Aaahhh, I sighed to myself. A well-written thriller that's also set in Australia (bonus!) and written by a woman (double bonus). The anticipation was high.
Spoiler alert: I was disappointed.
First, the things that didn't disappoint. The writing continued to be superb. The tension built beautifully. The way Harper switched between characters and scenes, from the events of the hike to the events afterwards, were seamless and smooth. I liked the characters - they were well-drawn and realistic for the most part. The action was terrific, and the surroundings of the hike was beautifully done. You could feel the temperature and atmosphere in that forest.
Sadly, though, even with all these great things going for this book, I felt let down at the end. I also feel terrible for saying it because I know writers google for reviews of their books (okay, so I google for reviews of my books), and one day Jane Harper may even read this. Jane, if you're reading, I really did think it was great. It's just, well... let me explain.
My issue was with the story.
It started out with the disappearance and presumed death of highflying, middle-aged Alice, out hiking on a teamwork bonding expedition for her work. She is presented to us first up as a whistleblower, exposing organised crime and money laundering done by her very upright financial firm. Later, we see that she's also not a very nice person, and unpopular at work.
The immediate question is: who got rid of Alice? Did the organised crime people find out she was about to expose them and do her in? Did her boss, who had a lot to lose, orchestrate the whole expedition so that it would be easier to knock her off? Did her long-suffering assistant, finally reach her tipping point and teach Alice a lesson? Or was it the assistant's twin sister, with a drug-affected past, trying to get her revenge on the world? Perhaps it was the mysterious son of the serial killer who used to roam the national park twenty years ago? All of these people have motive and opportunity to make Alice disappear, but who was it?
There are hints, allegations and mysteries presented to us all the way through, and the tension built so effectively that I was on the edge of my seat (well, okay, my very comfortable bed) trying to figure it out before the two fictional cops did.
Finally, it turns out that Alice's death was really just an accident. The whistle blowing had nothing to do with it. The boss wasn't suspicious of her. The assistant didn't get overwhelmed by frustration. Even the mysterious son of the serial killer is found, long dead, in the forest. So it wasn't him either
Basically - and sorry if you haven't read the end yet - the women get lost in the woods, get pretty annoyed with each other, and have a bit of a biff. Alice goes down, and never really gets up again.
And that's all. Bummer.
So I was disappointed. With all that build up, and all those expectations, I wanted more plot from that story. More conflict, more drama, more secrets. More organised crime and serial killing, basically, is what I wanted.
Students of our memoir course learn that the crisis point of the story is the most important thing. It occurs at about the three-quarter mark, and comes after a good set up and effective build up of tension. The crisis point of a story is made up of a gathering of strength and resources, and a showdown. The questions that have been set up must be answered.
Technically, I suppose Harper did this. But it was disappointing because with all those options in the set up, and all that build up, we readers expected more than the death simply being an accident.
The take-home lessons for writers are these: don't promise more than you're going to deliver. And, deliver what you promise. Make your crisis work for you, and give the readers what they've been anticipating.
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