At a busy festival site on a warm spring night, a baby lies alone in her stroller, her mother vanishing into the crowds.A year on, Kim Gillespie’s absence casts a long shadow as her friends and loved ones gather deep in the heart of South Australian wine country to welcome a new addition to the family.
Joining the celebrations is federal investigator Aaron Falk. But as he soaks up life in the lush valley, he begins to suspect this tight-knit group may be more fractured than it seems. Between Falk’s closest friend, a missing mother, and a woman he’s drawn to, dark questions linger as long-ago truths begin to emerge.
Dabney and Maggie read Jane Harper’s Exiles, then (virtually) got together to discuss the novel. and are here to share their thoughts.
Maggie: This is the third of the Aaron Falk novels, and while I would argue that you don’t need to read the first two books to enjoy Exiles, I would certainly encourage readers to do so. I feel that Aaron has changed since the events of The Dry and I enjoyed seeing that and knowing the cause for his growth. Would you agree with that assessment?
Dabney: Look, I love Aaron Falk and I think Harper is a gifted novelist. AND it made me crazy that whole pieces of this book assume you recall what happened to Aaron and his co-worker Raco in The Dry. The Dry was published SIX YEARS AGO. I struggle to remember what I did last week! I loved this book, I really did, but I found it frustrating that Harper writes as though knowledge of Aaron’s past was assumed.
Maggie: Fair enough. I *cheated* by watching the movie with Eric Bana a couple of years ago, so I felt comfortably familiar with everything, but I’m glad you’re able to advise readers they might need to read the first volumes to keep up. Anyway….
One of the things that I love about Harper as a writer is that there are no big ‘evils’ in her stories. Bad things happen but it’s not due to flaming psychosis or super villains but flawed people making bad choices. She delivers a clear mystery – a puzzle to be solved and a smart, capable person to do that, which certainly happens here. What are your thoughts on how she handles suspense?
Dabney: Labels are interesting – I tend to use them very specifically. I’d say that Harper writes psychological mysteries. She builds tension in her books by beginning with a crime – here, a woman’s presumed death a year ago – and then, slowly, through conversations, shows what really happened. Her books aren’t scary or gory – they’re the reading version of a slow motion crash you can’t look away from.
Her villains and her heroes – and this book has more than one of each – are regular people whose actions are believable and rather low key. And, as you say, really no one is evil – although the person responsible for Kim’s death did an excellent job of hiding their true personality.
Were you surprised at the story’s resolution?
Maggie: Yes and no. Certainly, in the first few chapters I would not have suspected the perpetrator, but as the story went on, I began to feel uncomfortable with the information we were getting about Kim. I’d say that by the 50% mark this person was pinging my radar and by the 75% mark I was fairly confident they had something to do with what happened. I appreciated how Ms. Harper used the onion approach to her revelation – at the start, the little things that bothered me were easily explained but with each additional layer those small issues became more problematic. I also felt like it mirrored beautifully how this problem – and the people who cause it – hide in plain sight in real life.
Something I loved here was the opposite of what would be considered healthy in reality, and that is how Joel and Zara continue to fight for justice long after the people around them are embracing acceptance and resignation. I thought both these characters were marvelous – a bit too perfect for teenagers but otherwise really enjoyable. All of the secondary characters are likable (they are meant to be) but along with Gemma, these are my favorites. What did you think of those three?
Dabney: I was sure I’d identified the baddie at the beginning and then lost that conviction for much of the novel. I love that about this book – Harper uses those small revelations to constantly change our sense of what happens. This book, to me, is really about how tight communities often create a shared reality which can prevent them from seeing, you know, actual reality. A shared world view is a joy – we all gravitate towards being known and understood – and its to Harper’s credit that even at the book’s end, you understand – and don’t judge – why Kim’s friends and family saw things the way they did.
I too loved Joel, his mom Gemma, and Zara, Kim’s daughter. Their characters play beautifully with Aaron’s – he is a hero who listens intently to what others say, and their views are key to making sense of the story. They also made Aaron more human – his past and present with Gemma are very well done and give the novel a sexy sweetness that worked for me. Did that part of the book work for you?
Maggie: I thoroughly liked Gemma and the romance she has with Aaron. Even though some dark things happened to her, she seemed to live in the light – to just enjoy all the good around her and stay focused on that. And I loved her down-to-earth nature – her ‘practical’ romance and her sound advice about making life choices. I also thought the author did a nice job of balancing making this an Aaron Falk novel – showing us his character growth, letting us see him fit into a community of friends (something he was essentially incapable of in The Dry), watching him fall in love – while still delivering her trademark low-key but riveting mystery. I didn’t lock all the doors after reading this – I felt no sense of menace, and until the very end we see no one killed on page – but I was still fascinated by the questions of what happened to Kim and Dean and the bigger question of if there is really anything sinister going on or if I was just looking at two of life’s inexplicable tragedies. For me, the charming characters, stellar writing and interesting enigmas added up to an A- read. I would recommend the series as a whole to any fan of detective stories and argue it’s among the best in that genre. What did you think of it overall?
Dabney: It’s a strong B+ for me. It didn’t quite have the I HAVE TO KEEP READING THIS TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS that I truly love – Lisa Jewel’s books as well as those of Karin Slaughter are often like that for me – but Exiles is a compelling, fascinating, well told story. I’m very curious to see what Aaron does next – that’s an interesting ending for him, isn’t it? Here’s hoping Harper has more Falk tales to tell!
Maggie: Me, too! I look forward to seeing where (if) it goes next, although I love her standalone tales, too.
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