Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Exiles

Exiles
Jane Harper
Pan Macmillan, $32.99

Jane Harper, whose debut novel The Dry won both critical and popular acclaim, is back on form with her latest crime novel, Exiles.

In The Dry, Harper introduced readers to Aaron Falk, whose return to the country town from which he’d fled, under suspicion, results in an initially predictable, but ultimately compelling, drama.

Falk reappeared in Force of Nature, a good read but less compelling book, in this reviewer’s opinion. In Exiles, Falk makes his third appearance. He is a guest of his friend Greg Raco and family in South Australia’s wine country, where a year earlier young mother Kim Gillespie disappeared. As readers of crime fiction will be aware, the more idyllic and close-knit a small town appears, the darker and deeper will be the secrets revealed in a crime novel set in said town. Exiles is no exception, with the town of Marralee (gentrified enough to host an enormously popular food and wine festival) the setting.

Some theorise that Kim simply walked away from her family. Yet those who knew and loved her are certain Kim would never leave her six-week-old baby Zoe behind – as she apparently did, peacefully sleeping, bundled in her stroller beneath the roller coaster.

A re-enactment, one year on, of Kim’s disappearance is hoped to jog people’s memories and yield new clues. There is also a secondary mystery in the small town’s background – the hit and run accident that left a boy fatherless and a young woman a widow and single mother.

The cast of characters includes Rohan Gillespie, Kim’s husband; Charlie Raco, her former on-again, off-again partner and the brother of Falk’s host; Zara, Kim’s 17-year-old daughter from her relationship with Charlie;  Joel Tozer, the teenage boy whose father Dean was killed in the hit and run a decade earlier; and Gemma, Joel’s mother, with whom there is more than a touch of sexual frisson with Falk from the past.

While the truth of Kim’s disappearance is the crux of the book’s central drama, the secondary mystery – that decades-earlier hit and run – runs parallel and is also solved. Kim’s disappearance, and the actions and assumptions surrounding her life in the months prior to it, also raise a rash of questions that go beyond the book’s immediate plot. Was her marriage happy? Would her friends know if she was? How well did the people with whom Kim had spent her childhood really know her?

As in her other novels, Harper is deft at creating atmosphere, both physical and emotional. While Kim’s disappearance is not explained until the end, doubts and questions about relationships and assumptions pepper the novel from the start.

As Falk heads into Marralee in the book’s opening pages, he thinks about “Those things that you didn’t even notice at the time. Little decisions that ultimately added up to something so much bigger … Those were the decisions that lingered, he thought … the little things you could have done differently, that was the stuff that haunted you.”

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