Jane Harper Invites us into the Forest
I would personally like to think most people eventually reach the conclusion, at some point in their lives, of reality being a matter of perception to a certain extent. After all, we have been presented with examples of this since our formative years in the form of history books, more often than not written by the winners and only telling one side of the story.
When facts are lacking and all we have to go on are people’s stories, there is no telling what the original reality might have been, even when it comes to potential murder, as Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk is about to find out in Force of Nature by Jane Harper.
The story opens with five women, work colleagues, going on a hike to a corporate retreat for some good old-fashioned team-building. When all is said and done, only four women walk out of the forest, and it’s up to agent Falk to find her and figure out what happened.
Unfortunately for him, the matters are made fairly complex by the remaining four women, each one giving a different account of what transpired in the woods. Whether out of shock or personal motive, everyone seems to have something to hide.
Knowing the truth of it all might be lost to the four contradicting stories, Falk is forced to head out into those woods himself to piece the puzzle together… especially since the missing woman is a reluctant informant of his. What he finds in the dark and isolated forest are layers upon layers of secrets, pointing to ruined friendships, jealousy, and perhaps a grand betrayal among those five women. The question, however, still remains: is the fifth woman alive, or did a cunning murder truly take place in this secluded corner of the world?
The Truth Among False Truths
To begin with, I would like to take a moment to discuss the movie the premise of this book is most certainly based on, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, based on Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove”. It uses a similar structure, of having four characters tell conflicting accounts of an event, with it being up to the viewer to decide where the truth lies.
Though it was filmed in 1950, it still holds up to modern audiences, and I believe it is primarily because of how it structures the mystery, playing on our long-standing desire as human beings to find a real truth among a myriad of false truths.
Personally, I would be more than happy to see this structure used in crime novels, and I believe Force of Nature only serves to support this. I had no problem getting hooked into the mystery whatsoever, in part because Jane Harper doesn’t beat around the bush for too long before getting the action started. Each of the four accounts is interesting in its own way, and I spent quite a bit of time analyzing them, mixing and matching the potential facts to try and separate truth from lies.
Generally mystery novels will keep me reading through them in hopes of finding the resolution more quickly, but this one actually made me want to pause and think for myself. In my eyes, it’s the trademark of any solid and engaging mystery. Our very own Western Rashomon in modern times, if you will.
The Intricate Webs of Professional Life
Structure and all such things aside, I found the story itself to be quite engaging and enjoyably complex throughout, with the mystery only growing deeper and deeper with each passing chapter.
Aaron Falk is definitely a capable protagonist to guide us through this investigation, and it becomes fairly interesting to match his journey with the intermittent chapters which tell us bits and pieces about the hike itself. Harper is fairly adept at drumming up interest with short and concise chapters, often throwing in new hooks or questions to keep our brains busy.
Though I am not any sort of authority figure when it comes to corporate culture, it naturally had a heavy presence in this story and felt believable for the most part. It also made an interesting mixture with the setting of the Australian bush, combining two extremes lethal in their own ways. Falk’s journey deeper and deeper into forest is particularly well-written, the isolation and disorientation cutting us like razor blades.
I also must admire the web of intrigue Harper managed to weave between the five women, even if it does at times go just a tad above being realistic; I think any of us would be hard-pressed to find groups of people with relationships as complex as these five ladies.
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Slowly unravelling it becomes even somewhat addictive as I simply became curious to see just how deep it all went. Naturally I won’t spoil the ending, but I do feel the need to say it does carry a satisfying conclusion, one with a bit more finality than the movie its premise is based on.
The Final Verdict
Force of Nature by Jane Harper is a captivating and solid mystery carried above its peers by the complexity of its intrigue as well as its time-tested Rashomon structure. I can easily recommend this to literally anyone who enjoys good mysteries, especially if you’re into the police procedural genre and enjoy smaller, more rural settings.
Jane Harper is an Australian author who worked as a print journalist for thirteen years in both her home country as well as the UK.
Her debut novel, The Dry, won her the 2017 Gold ABIA for Book of the Year, as well as the Gold Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association of the United Kingdom for best crime novel of the year. Her other works include the notable thrillers Force of Nature and The Lost Man.