“We see what we expect to see.”
Jane Harper’s novel, Exiles, is set in the small town of Marralee, and it’s here that Federal Investigator (Financial Crimes) Aaron Falk returns for a christening. The christening is of the son of Aaron’s longtime friends Rita and Greg Raco, and it was originally supposed to take place a year earlier but was postponed. Last year, Kim Gillespie, a woman with deep roots to the Raco family, disappeared from the annual fair leaving her six week old daughter in a stroller. Kim’s shoe was found in the local reservoir but her body has not been discovered. Her disappearance and probable death is chalked up to suicide and post-natal depression. In some ways the theory fits; she was on medication for depression, but in other ways, it’s a narrative that doesn’t sit easily–especially with Zara, Kim’s teenage daughter from a decades long relationship with Charlie Raco, Greg’s brother. The christening was delayed due to Kim’s disappearance, so here we are a year later.
Falk finds himself sucked into the mystery of Kim’s disappearance. Zara hasn’t moved on, and she’s friends with another local teen, Joel who is mourning the death of his father, Dwayne a local accountant who was killed in a hit-and-run accident a few years before. While the adults in town accept that Kim committed suicide and that Dwayne was killed in a random hit-and-run accident, the two teens, Zara and Josh, are not satisfied. Falk initially dismisses Zara and Joel’s claims, but there are some uncomfortable coincidences and some things that just don’t add up. Both Kim and Dwayne died during festival time. Both Dwayne, and it’s assumed Kim ended up in the reservoir. It took 5 months to find Dwayne’s body, but Kim’s body has never been found. The teenagers are unhappy with how both investigations have been handled and so they discuss their concerns with Falk. Falk never knew Dwayne or Kim but he met Gemma, Dwayne’s widow (Joel’s stepmum) some time back, and while there were sparks, Gemma turned Falk down.
Maralee is a close-knit town where most of the residents grew up together. When Kim left Charlie Raco after several decades of an on-and-off again relationship, she moved to Adelaide and there married Rowan, another Marralee refugee. It’s not exactly that the residents of Marralee picked Charlie over Kim, but Kim drifted away, and all her former friends lost touch.
This is a superior crime novel which explores the aftermath of two different and yet possibly connected crimes. The author excels at conveying the ripple effects of crime–the vast space left by violent death. Many of Kim’s former friends feel guilty about the way they lost touch with Kim in light of what seems to be her suspected suicide, and perhaps that guilt allows them to accept the narrative of suicide. It’s festival time once again; there’s an appeal launched to the fair crowd for any additional information about Kim’s disappearance. The juxtaposition of the fun-seeking festival-goers is set against the daunting theory that Kim, depressed and unable to bear life any longer, abandoned her new baby, exited the festival grounds and leapt into the reservoir. It’s a sobering thought.
Jane Harper doesn’t write cheap thrills here. This is a thoughtful, slow-burn novel which avoids surprises, shock elements and plodding police work. Instead, there’s Falk slowly chewing away at the various possibilities regarding Kim’s disappearance which he aligns with known or hypothetical scenarios. Perhaps because he’s not related to the Racos and perhaps because he is not officially on the case, he is able to ruminate on the niggling doubts about Kim and Dwayne’s cases–doubts which gnaw away at the edges of his mind. There’s something wrong, but Falk can’t pinpoint this deeply embedded feeling that he’s missing something.
With the track ahead clear once more, they walked on, the lights from the rides throwing bright colors onto their faces. Falk turned back to Raco and had opened his mouth when the words simply disappeared. It happened without warning as, in a dormant part of his mind, something stirred. Whatever it was shifted, heavy and stubborn, only to resettle awkwardly. It left behind a mild but distinctly uncomfortable sensation, as though Falk had forgotten something he really needed to remember. He blinked in confusion. What had triggered that?
For those who have read other Harper novels, these are several repeat characters, but it not necessary to read the previous two Falk novels before reading Exiles. I listened to the audio version which was read by Stephen Shanahan.