Twelve years after he left Evelyn Bay burdened by guilt over his part in a tragedy, Keiran Elliot is back in town. He’s returned to the sleepy coastal town to help clear out his parents’ house and move his dad into a nursing home.
The summer visitors have departed Evelyn Bay by the time Kieran arrives with his partner and their baby daughter. The pace of life in this small Tasmanian town has returned to its usual gentle rhythm. But beneath the outward calm, there are hidden tensions.
Not everyone in Evelyn Bay is as pleased to see Kieran as his old friends Ash, Olivia and Sean. Some residents hold him responsible for the deaths of his older brother Finn and Sean’s brother Toby — they’d gone out to rescue Kieren in the midst of a ferocious storm but their boat hit submerged rocks and overturned. it was not the only tragedy to hit the town that day — Olivia’s 13-year-old sister Gabby also went missing, She was presumed drowned though her body was never recovered.
Memories of that fateful day are re-awakened when the body of another girl, an arts student and part-time waitress named Bronte, is found on the beach. As rumours spiral on the Evelyn Bay web forum, the community begins to fear there is a killer in their midst. One that might have been responsible for Gabby’s death yet gone undetected for twelve years.
Long buried secrets are revealed and old loyalties are put to the test in the days that follow before the truth is revealed.
The Survivors isn’t a very suspenseful novel. it has a measured thoughtful pace that comes to a satisfyingly surprise ending. I didn’t rate it as highly as Jane Harper’s first novel, The Dry, because I didn’t warm to the central character of Kieren. I actually found him annoyingly stupid at times — what kind of father takes a baby for a walk down a treacherous cliff path — and his deep interest in Bronte’s death is puzzling. He barely knew her — he met her on the beach on his first day home, and then again that night in the bar yet takes on the role of detective once her body is found.
Despite all that, I did enjoy the book and the way it weaves in themes of guilt, remorse and jealousy. Alongside that we get a a highly atmospheric tale. Jane Harper portrays the kind of town where life has a certain predictability. Everyone knows everything else about their neighbours, and those who are not born there, are regarded with a touch of suspicion.
The novel takes on a more melancholic, brooding tone when the action moves from the town centre to a network of caves that become submerged at high tide. Standing guard nearby are The Survivors — three life sized iron figures which look out to sea towards the spot where, many years earlier, 54 people drowned when their ship hit the rocks.
As the narrative flashes back to the day of the storm, we discover how close Kieren came to losing his own life in that same spot.
. . . they’d waded through the oily blackness. The relief as they hit open air had vanished immediately when they splashed out of the cave and into daylight that was more like night. The beach had disappeared. The peak of each wave reached his chest. His skin stung in the driving rain and the sea slapped high against the rock. The dark twin mouths of the caves inhaled huge lungfuls of water before spewing them out again, and the currents clawed at Kieran’s legs. . . Everything seemed different.”