“Exiles”: When a Mother Goes Missing – A Review
Exiles – A Review
By Narada Roy
Exiles is the third book in the Aaron Falk trilogy by business journalist turned mystery writer, Jane Harper, in which a financial crime cop gets involved in more consequential criminal activity.
The novel takes place in a small Australian town in which a woman whom everyone seems to know in this parochial community goes missing, leaving her newborn baby in a pram.
In the prologue to Exiles, Falk is on the way with Greg Raco, a friend made in the previous book, Forces of Nature, to a fictional part of South Australian wine country, the Marralee Valley, to stand as godfather at the christening of Raco and his wife, Rita’s second child, Henry. The baby Rita was pregnant with in the first book, “The Dry” is now 5, and though the family still lives in Kiewarra, Marralee is where Raco grew up and where his brother Charlie runs the family winery. The christening was to be held over the same weekend as the local wine and produce festival, a state-fair-type event that makes it a perfect time to visit the area.
But the first night of the fair, Charlie Raco’s ex-wife Kim, now remarried, parked her new baby’s pram under the Ferris wheel, then disappeared. The search consumed the next few days, and the christening was postponed.
The first chapter opens exactly a year later when the fair is again active and during which an ‘appeal’ has been organized by Kim’s family. Of course, we learn appropriately by then that Kim never found, though one of her white sneakers had turned up stuck in the dam by the reservoir. The prevailing view is that she took her own life much to the chagrin of Zara, the 17-year-old daughter Kim had with Charlie. Zara believes that there is no way that Kim would choose to leave her and her newborn without a mother.
Zara has made up a missing person’s flier to distribute at the fair. Others believe there may be some connection between a hit-and-run five years earlier, and though the local cop thinks they’re dreaming, Falk doesn’t rule it out.
Unlike the previous books, in Exiles, Harper gives Falk a love interest: Gemma, the festival director, whom Falk meets in a flashback when Raco is supposed to meet both of them at a bar and doesn’t show up. Gemma was widowed five years earlier by that unsolved hit-and-run. With Falk fantasizing about marrying her, by the time of the christening, he and Gemma are in that church for a very different purpose – but one ensconced in familial ties bringing to the fore the notion that this pair could have their own family one day.
This still leaves the mystery of what happened to Kim Gillespie. In such a tightknit community, how does a person just disappear, especially as cameras do not catch her leaving by the front gate of the festival and the 17 year old watching the small back door swears she didn’t exit by it?
Exiles takes time to introduce and establish its large cast of characters, notable among them the protagonist Falk, a shrewd and reserved policeman and an outsider welcomed into their close-knit community. Falk is just a good investigator; there is nothing eccentric or special about him like Christie’s Poirot or Conan Doyl’s Holmes. In a way, that’s refreshing. The focus is more on the antecedental characters and the woman who goes missing, Kim Gillespie, who was once an entrenched member in the Maralee community but had since grown distant.
Though Harper makes a point of careful plotting and neatly tied-up threads, her books are as much about Australian society and the pressures and dangers of the country’s landscape as they are about finding missing people and solving murders. Social issues like domestic abuse, addiction and bullying play a significant role in her plots, and “Exiles” is no exception. The ability to spot subtle warning signs of a troubled soul is probably Falk’s greatest gift as an investigator, leading him to look for answers close to home.
While the particulars of the sleepy vineyard village in which the story is set, typical of a small tightknit Australian hamlet are intriguing, elements of the plot leave the reader with more questions than answers, and the novel’s slow pace and vague conclusion yield a sense of subtle sense of wanting.
The centrepiece of the story, the disappearance of Kim Gillespie is the focus of the plot, but the suspense drags on unnecessarily at times rather than propelling the story forward. While the pace picks up around the middle, the final twist is revealed so late into the story that it feels anticlimactic and is not told from the point of view of the protagonist, which is more typical of mystery genre writing.
Still, Falk’s investigation has many twists and turns, but what makes the book memorable is Harper’s skill at plying through personal mysteries — for instance, why a friendship has ebbed, or how not knowing the fate of a loved one affects a family. Harper’s forte is using a mystery to explore the hidden personal lives of characters making this genre book more nuanced and literate.