The Lost Man: Isolation, suicide and mental illness in the outback
Note: This discussion contains minor spoilers for The Lost Man. It also discusses suicide and mental health issues. If this raises concerns for you, you can contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or in the UK you can call Samaritans on 116 123. Feature photo by Brian McMahon on Unsplash
The fear of isolation
There aren’t many things which appeal to me about travelling in the outback, to be quite honest. It’s probably un-Australian to say so, but there’s something which always freaked me out about the isolation of those highways.
Maybe it’s because I’ve watched too many shows about Australia’s backpacker murders or the fact that I was only six when I first saw the news reports about the frankly terrifying murder of Peter Falconio (thanks mum and dad for encouraging my Murderino tendencies early on). Perhaps my aversion to those red dusty roads hinges on the trips we took when I was a teenager, in a four-wheel-drive with shoddy air-conditioning and vinyl seats.
Jane Harper plays on the natural fear this isolation creates to build a slow, simmering tension in The Lost Man, a compelling literary thriller set in far western Queensland.
As far as he could see, the land stretched out, deep and open, all the way to the desert, A perfect sea of nothingness. If someone was looking for oblivion, that was the place to find it.
The novel opens with the death of a man at the mysterious stockman’s grave, a landmark in the middle of a vast cattle station. This man, Cameron, is one of three brothers whose family have been on that stretch of isolated land for generations.
As much as I’m repelled by the isolation, I’m also fascinated by it: a strange mix of feelings which has drawn many people to explore the outback since white settlement in Australia.
When I was a teen my family took holidays on The Ghan and Indian Pacific, trains running from Adelaide to Darwin and Sydney to Perth respectively. I remember one town we passed through had a population you could count on two hands - or maybe it was one.
I was scared by the idea that, were it not for the tourism of the trains, something could wipe the entire town of the map without anyone knowing. The Lost Man brought back so many of these feelings for me, in an evocative and swift-moving story I couldn’t pull away from.
Why are suicide rates so high in rural Australia?
Somewhat surprisingly, the mysterious death which The Lost Man centres on was not the aspect of this story which chilled me most. Instead it was the exploration of two social issues which have become a sad reality in rural and regional Australia: suicide and domestic abuse.
Australia is a huge country, but capital cities are the most populated. I know from my own experience the way some of those ‘city folk’ view farmers and rural areas, if they think of them at all, is steeped in the history of explorers and Banjo Paterson poems.
Although I grew up in what is now a regional city, I gained a lot of insight from my parents. My mum grew up on a sheep and wheat property in the north-west Victorian mallee, while my dad started working on his grandparent’s dairy outside their tiny rural town in New South Wales when he was eight.
The stories I heard from them, plus my reporting of rural parts of our newspaper’s patch, doesn’t mean I know exactly what it’s like to live in remote country, but it has given me some insight into the challenges facing those who do.
Quite apart from geographic location, there still seems to be an ideal of being bred ‘tougher’ in the country, which feeds into atrociously high suicide rates among rural Australians. A 2017 report by the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health confirmed the number of deaths by suicide per 100,000 people in remote and regional Australia is 50% higher than cities.
This isn’t just about farmers, although that’s what The Lost Man focuses on. Miners working fly-in fly-out shifts away from family are also at higher risk of psychological distress.
Likewise, those industries which are in constant contact with farmers who may be distressed (especially given the devastating drought conditions, catastrophic fires and floods) can also negatively impact the psychological health of people in rural areas.
Unlike in the city, it’s just harder to find services that can help. Tiny, tight-knit communities, such as that explored in The Lost Man, may also not take kindly to outsiders offering advice even when there is genuine need. The exclusivity of ‘the local’ is typified in the way Nathan has been frozen out by the township for a decision made years before the events of The Lost Man.
Geographic isolation and domestic violence
As I made my way through The Lost Man, I was surprised by the exploration of family violence in this setting. I really shouldn’t have been. After all, intimate partner violence is something one in three Australian women report experiencing and an average on one woman a week is murdered by a current or former partner (Our Watch).
In rural and remote areas, the social isolation required for a partner to exert control is a natural byproduct of the place they call home. Like with suicide and mental health issues, there are fewer services which can help women in abusive relationships, or the opportunities for them to be able to safely leave and find financial stability.
Lack of affordable accommodation is both one of the main reasons women feel they have to stay in an abusive relationship and why they may return.
This inability to leave with children is sensitively explored in The Lost Man, where a character is unable to use the limited transport on the farm to leave and feels that life as a housewife will make living independently with children near-impossible.
What’s more, this abuse is discussed in a generational sense. That’s something I’ve not come across in anything I’ve read before, although the continued cycle of behaviour is a huge social concern.
The Lost Man was so much more than I expected. It’s not just a mystery with a dry, red dust backdrop. It’s an intense look at the darker side of rural Australia, the dirt clinging to the edges of our romanticised image of that strange outback landscape.
The Lost Man was my first Jane Harper, but I understood immediately why she has fast become the new darling of Australia’s literary scene. As pages turn, you feel the baked soil on your feet, the heat searing your back, the fear building in the pit of your stomach with skill only the best writers possess.
He couldn’t simply leave, for lots of reasons. Financial. Practical. And not least because sometimes, quite a lot of the time, he felt connected to the outback in a way that he loved. There was something about the brutal heat when the sun was high in the sky and he was watching the slow meandering movement of the herds. Looking out over the wide-open plains and seeing the changing colours in the dust. It was the only time when he felt something close to happiness. If Xander couldn’t feel it himself, and Nathan knew not everyone could, then he couldn’t explain it. It was harsh and unforgiving, but it felt like home.
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