My sole regret in listening to Exiles‘ twelve hours is that I neglected to read The Dry and Force Of Nature, both still nestled in my TBR. Gah, this was good, though I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why for the first oh ten or so hours. As I listened to the final two, it hit me: I had experienced one of the most elaborate, meandering premises I’d ever read, taken in, bamboozled, yet the whole time I was smugly making assumptions about who, what, where, and why. Having come to the end, I have to decide: did I just read something I can throw the “contrived” criticism at, or something utterly clever, brilliant, and compelling? For starters, let’s offer the publisher’s blurb to get some narrative details out of the way:
Federal Investigator Aaron Falk is on his way to a small town deep in Southern Australian wine country for the christening of an old friend’s baby. But mystery follows him, even on vacation.
This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of Kim Gillespie’s disappearance. One year ago, at a busy town festival on a warm spring night, Kim safely tucked her sleeping baby into her stroller, then vanished into the crowd. No one has seen her since. When Kim’s older daughter makes a plea for anyone with information about her missing mom to come forward, Falk and his old buddy Raco can’t leave the case alone.
As Falk soaks up life in the lush valley, he is welcomed into the tight-knit circle of Kim’s friends and loved ones. But the group may be more fractured than it seems. Between Falk’s closest friend, the missing mother, and a woman he’s drawn to, dark questions linger as long-ago truths begin to emerge. What would make a mother abandon her child? What happened to Kim Gillespie?
Harper takes the long way ’round to answer the vital question “What happened to Kim Gillespie?” For the novel’s first two-thirds, Kim hovers over the narrative in her unanswered spectral state while I was caught up in the compelling details of the “tight-knit circle” of friends and family Falk enters. And they are seemingly everyday, ordinary ones of marriages made and broken, children born and grown, friendships established, sustained, and ruptured. There is no tragedy, at least not until the end, and there is no drama and yet, I was completely drawn in by Harper’s cast. To start, I loved Falk himself, lonely, austere, observant, thoughtful. His budding relationship with the festival director, Gemma, who herself lost husband Dean to a car accident, a body never recovered, and has since brought to teen-age-hood his son and her stepson, Joel. Every single character is afforded a personality, a life, and relationships with every single other character. Joel still mourns his father and a nice back-and-forth, for example, develops between Aaron and Joel over ridding Joel’s father’s memorial plaque of the graffiti scrawled over the safety rails where his car went over.
Harper’s novel is infused with this personal, ordinary detail and in that detail, I wondered about what role each and every one played in Kim’s life and the man whose life ended when a hit-and-run saw him go over that rail. Pets and children, friends and cool acquaintances are part and parcel of the present, a year after Kim’s mysterious disappearance and six after the accident, as Harper also offers a back-and-forth movement between filling in their past, showing how it bears on their present, and glimpses, like small glimmers of light in the night, how it may come together to answer the question, “What happened to Kim Gillespie?” Or at least how I thought it would come together: I was wrong. And like Falk, as he ponders the events he was a minor witness to at last year’s festival, he muses about how we see what we want to see rather than what’s actually there. Isn’t that as true of a reader as it is of an investigator, aren’t we witnesses too to what, especially in crime fiction, an author affords us, even while the answer is there all along? Harper isn’t a red herring kind of gal, but she does want us to think about people, what they’re like, what they’ll do, and what motivates their actions: the truth is laid out before us, but we, like Falk, are stumped by assumptions. We are lulled for a long, long time and it doesn’t look, at least to us, the reader-listeners, like there can be an answer. Contrivance, or genius?: as a reader-listener, I’m leaning to both, a brilliant, human, at heart both tragedy and hope, contrivance, believable, understandable, justifiable, justice-served, and quite quite flaw-fully human.
As a final note, I’d like to add how very much I loved Stephen Shanahan’s narration. It’s even, clear, subtly nuanced, and avoids the emoting many narrators are plagued with. He never wavers his pitch, thank the narrating gods, and narrates a book instead of reading like a stage, or film actor. This is a difference I have noted: the former brings the text into the fore and the latter, well, it makes you more aware of the “actor” than of the text. I enjoy the former and am frustrated by the latter. It’s my preference for what I think makes a great audiobook and we do have one here. I would happily urge you to listen, or read Harper’s Exiles if not to add that if you’ve missed the first two books, you may, unlike yours truly, gain a world of pleasure by starting with the first and making your way to the present. With Miss Austen’s helpful scale, Jane Harper’s Exiles offers “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Jane Harper’s Exiles releases on January 31st and may be found at your preferred audiobook vendors. I received an advance audiobook copy from Macmillan Audio for the purpose of writing this review (and the fact of which does not affect my opinion) via Netgalley.
6 thoughts on “Audio-Book Review: Jane Harper’s EXILES (Aaron Falk #3)”
I’ve read, and enjoyed, all of her books. I have this one on hold at the library and I’m #2 in the queue. Good to know the wait is worth it.
So true about the author not using red herrings! Nor does she really employ a twist ending. She’s never obvious in her clue placement, she just slowly drives away the obscuring fog until the answer smacks you in the face. She’s one of the best at evoking a feeling of ‘creeping dread’ in the reader, IMO.
Thank you and you are so right in your analysis! It’s a conundrum but the revelations are more in keeping with the characters’ psychology than to fit any sense of a “puzzle”. I did correctly identify one aspect of the mystery, but it was mere seconds away from Falk’s revelation.
I’m glad to hear you’re #2 in the queue because I think you’re going to love this one! Have you seen the film of The Dry? Any good? I’m not a huge Bana fan, but if the film is worth watching, I might.
Wonderful review – I have read all 3 in the series – IMHO #2 was not as strong as the others, but still a great mystery. In all 3 books, the landscape is so important, almost another character in the story. As an Australian, I can say that she has nailed it.
First, thank you! Fun to write when the book is good. Or bad. It’s mediocrity that makes for a boring review: reflects the text.
Oh, that’s so great to know and I did note that all the time: Falk et. al., but especially Falk, is always gazing out at the landscape and the descriptions are really wonderful. I enjoyed them immensely. I liked how Falk fell in love, not just with Gemma, but with her house, her step-son, her cottage, everything about her and her choice to live in this town…also, the lasagna!!
Alas, I can’t advise you about the movie, as I have not seen it. At least it was filmed in Australia!
No worries, I watched the trailer, looks like standard fare and I always prefer to read over watching a film any day.