Hard to believe that The Dry is Harper’s first novel. Writing with the seasoned authority of a longtime author, Harper delivers a slow-burn tale of small-town secrets and age-old animosities. Set in the declining Northern Victorian town of Kiewarra, the plot takes off from the first page when close-cropped blond-haired
federal agent Aaron Falk “drags his heels” up from Melbourne, trailing a cloud of dust and cracked leaves behind him. In the late afternoon heat, where shade has become a fleeting commodity, Kiewarra has seen its paltry population dwindle even further after years of drought, hardship, and the debris of too many farmers struggling to make ends meet.
Aaron arrives in a town that shimmers under days of burning blue sky. He’s finding it hard to believe that Luke Hadler, his best mate from his teenage years, has actually murdered his wife, Karen, and their young son, Billy, before taking the gun to himself. The incident is shocking, causing Kiewarra to seethe with pent-up suspicions. Harper’s novel simmers with radical tension: from the initial police report to the town’s new officer, Sergeant Raco--who has stepped straight in at the deep end to identify the crime as murder/suicide--and the
notion that Luke Hadler was struggling financially.
An uneasy weight begins to settle in Aaron’s chest, jumpstarting his thoughts about Ellie Deacon, the dark-eyed girl, and the lie that he and Luke forged twenty years previously. Aaron recalls the fear and teenage hormones pounding through his veins.
Memories he hasn’t thought of in years begin to surface. He can’t stop thinking about Ellie and their teenage gang of four: Luke, Aaron, Ellie, and beautiful Gretchen who turns up at the Hadlers' funeral, telling Aaron that there’s barely anyone at Kiewarra who’s “not at the end of their tether” and that Luke “didn’t seem to be struggling any more than anyone else.”
“Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral,” says Gerry, who with his wife, Beth, pleads with Aaron to help them--to find out what really happened so they can clear Luke’s name. Although Luke was like a brother, Aaron is initially hesitant to get involved, telling Gerry that he’s just not the right person to investigate. Although money trouble may have played a part, Gerry is convinced that the case isn’t as “open and shut" as the police officers from the neighboring town of Clyde first thought.
In addition, the residents of Kiewarra are beginning to gossip about the surreptitious return of “the Falk boy.” Aaron’s reappearance has re-fueled their paranoia and anger,
stoking their endless fears about money, the drought, and the tragedy of Luke and his family.
It’s quite a rabbit hole that Aaron has plunged into. There’s obvious appeal in his desire to solve the mystery of Luke’s death and to seek out what really happened to Ellie, whose body was found floating in the town’s river
(now nothing more than an empty, dusty bed stretching “long and barren into the horizon”). Initially blamed for her death, Aaron and his father were run out of town by Mal Deacon, Ellie’s father. As Aaron finally decides to retrace the crime scene with Sergeant Raco and explore the Hadlers' last moments, Gretchen tells him “the cat’s definitely out of the bag”--it’s all around town that he and Raco have been “nosing around.”
Drunk, senile Mal Deacon, resents Aaron being back in Kiewarra. Over the years, the rumors of Aaron and Luke’s complicity in Ellie’s death have been fed well by Mal’s nephew, Grant Dow. According to Raco, for two decades Mal Deacon has loomed larger than life in Kiewarra, selling himself
as “the bogeyman, the specter at the feast, and the monster in the bed.”
Infused with efforts to vindicate Luke, Harper intersperses Aaron’s dangerous journey to unlock the truth with messages from the past in the form of a plot device that paints a sensitive portrait of Ellie and Luke and Aaron, reflecting a world of loyalty and love and innocence. Harper gradually gives us a complete sense of Aaron’s present life as well as his past connection to Luke and Ellie, with many details filled in. Painful realities are only hinted at or outright avoided. In other words, we get to know him as we would a friend or colleague in our own lives: at first hearing only what he wants to tell us, then gradually becoming his confidante as he works with Sergeant Raco to solve this double-edged murder investigation, pulling back the layers of suspicion in
a town where people have been long hurt by buried secrets.
Where was Luke the afternoon Ellie had died? Throughout Aaron’s return, the question resurfaces “like a stain.” Beautifully written with a morally ambiguous twist, Kiewarra’s drought
symbolizes a world in which Luke’s marriage was perhaps not what it at first seemed, as well as a past where some things “just shouldn’t be.” More than anyone, Ellie was a victim of this town, its secrets, and its lies and fear. She had needed someone--needed Aaron, maybe--and he failed her. The ending is heart-stopping. While Luke and his family are eventually vindicated, more impassioned is Ellie. At risk of being forgotten in all the chaos, this vulnerable ghost of a girl, dead for nearly twenty years, finally gets one last chance to be heard.