Living with Guilt

In 1976, an American, Judith Guest, published a 263-page debut novel called Ordinary People. Robert Redford made it into a movie with Donald Sutherland in 1980, and it won the Oscar for Best Picture. I read the novel and saw the movie and was moved to tears by both of them. Of course, I still cry when Beth dies in Little Women and weep more or less nonstop throughout Sarah Plain and Tall, so I’m not sure my tears are such a powerful statement. Nevertheless, I think both book and movie would hold up to scrutiny today, and I recommend them.

I recently read Jane Harper’s The Survivors, her fourth mystery, which came out in February 2021. It’s nothing like Judith Guest’s book: for one thing, The Survivors is almost 400 pages long, and it’s a complicated, many layered novel that slides with ease from past to present and features not just a suffering family like Ordinary People but a whole town struck by tragedy. Still, there’s something the books have in common at their core, and that’s why my mind surprised me by connected them. They both describe two brothers growing up with their parents by the ocean, living in a happy and normal family until the adored older brother, everyone’s golden boy, drowns in a storm, while the younger brother lives on, convinced that he has caused this unbearable death. Surviving not just with grief but with overpowering guilt: both books deal with this.

I have read all three of Harper’s previous mysteries with great pleasure, but The Survivors is my favorite. All of her books are set in Australia, and this one unfolds in a small Tasmanian beach town in which, twelve years earlier, a storm drowned two young men who ran a diving business and a fourteen-year-old girl. The whole town still mourns these deaths, and when a  young waitress in the town’s one local restaurant is found murdered on the beach the day after Kieran Elliott, a survivor of the storm, returns to town to help his parents pack up their house and move, it becomes clear that a great deal about these decade-ago deaths has never been resolved.

Apart from an intricate plot, a rich collection of characters, and a very well-drawn setting, the book offers many poignant insights: in one case, for example, through vignettes about a wife caring for a husband with dementia. What grabbed me most, though, was Harper’s ability to convey so realistically the feelings and behavior of young men between fifteen and twenty-five. Their insecurity, their need to prove themselves to—and measure themselves against—their male friends, and their unintentional blindness to the feelings of everyone around them hit me as dead on. Reading this book, many parents of still-maturing sons will feel that they have struck gold.

I listen to a lot of books instead of reading them, and The Survivors was one of my audiobooks. As an American I can’t comment on the quality of the reader’s Tasmanian accent—assuming there is such a thing—but I’m convinced that hearing the book read by an Australian gave it an immediacy and emotional punch that reading it to myself couldn’t have produced. I was gripped by The Survivors, and I hope you’ll read (or listen to it), too.

Wineglass Bay on the Freycinet Peninsula in North East Tasmania on a clear sunny day.

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