We see what we expect to see: Exiles and the trickle-down of coercive control

What Harper has done is crucial and commendable. Exiles symbolises a modern Australia willing to abandon a reductionist view of domestic abuse.

Jane Harper is the new big thing in Australian thriller writing. A former journalist, she was able to find a niche centering on “Outback” settings, which have taken off in an Australian marketplace that increasingly craves local stories. Her first novel, The Dry was turned into a feature film starring Eric Bana, and her third, The Lost Man, is now on the HSC English Standard curriculum.

Every interview with Harper emphasises how “Australian” her books are, whether that be the settings or characters. Like Tim Winton was able to do years ago, she has made people connect with her novels on an almost patriotic, quasi-nostalgic level.

That connection makes the subject of her most recent novel, Exiles, worthy of a closer look. Thrillers often get dismissed as “airport reads.” But, what people find easy and comfortable to read, and even more importantly, what authors find easy to write is representative of what has become socially acceptable.

Exiles follows her repeat protagonist Aaron Faulk, an AFP officer based in Melbourne, as he tries to solve a cold case involving the disappearance of a young mother, Kim Gillespie, set in a rural South Australian town. It has all the usual plot elements. We jump from suspect to suspect as Falk tries to recreate the events of the night. Was it the ex-boyfriend? Or perhaps the corrupt Sheriff?

When reading the novel for the first time myself, I was disappointed by how slow it felt. Nothing seemed to be happening And even after 300 pages there was no sign of a payoff. The whole plot felt like a wild goose chase.

This — in fact — had been Harper’s point all along.

It’s no secret that police have been historically awful at solving domestic abuse cases. Unless there is a mark, victims are told, there is nothing law enforcement can do. In their seminal book on domestic abuse, See What You Made Me Do, Jess Hill noted how “domestic violence” may be too narrow of a term to reflect the experiences of survivors in Australia, or as she put it:

“Wherever possible, I have replaced the term ‘domestic violence’ with ‘domestic abuse’. I did this because, in some of the worst abusive relationships, physical violence is rare, minor, or barely present.”

Whether it be emotional or financial, abuse sits on a wide spectrum and until recently, laws have been slow to catch up. Hill uses the term “coercive control” to define the process by which a perpetrator slowly takes control of a victim, isolating them from family, friends, and wider society.

With this frame in mind, not only does the case make sense, but Faulk’s inability to solve it makes even more sense. He looks for physical evidence, tirelessly looks into the alibi of almost every town member, and walks the crime scene multiple times over. The fact that Kim leaves for Adelaide with a new husband, quits her job to ‘take care’ of the home and their kid, and very rarely sees people from her home beside the odd holiday is a miscellaneous detail. It’s not that Faulk is a bad detective, the very fact that he is a good one makes him unable to solve this case.

In his own words, all Faulk had seen was a “grieving husband and father” not the “controlling and violent man” he was.

After this was revealed at the end, I expected this final twist to dominate how the book was reviewed. Not only were there no interviewers asking about domestic abuse but the headlines were the same as they always are. “Writing in a pandemic and the rural noir renaissance,” was the ABC’s choice.

This is a missed opportunity in the wider discussion we are having about how women are treated in the justice system. Queensland recently passed reforms adding a “pattern of behaviour” into the domestic abuse code and strengthening the offence of stalking, and NSW is currently considering similar changes. However, there is still some hesitation about criminalising coercive control. If anything, this is because the education on what abuse actually looks like is insufficient.

The power of fiction to bridge that gap should not be underestimated. I won’t argue that Exiles could have the same impact on domestic abuse that The Invisible Man had on Civil Rights, but it’s a shame that Harper wrote something so explicitly tied to this issue and didn’t take the final step.

Maybe the most powerful thing Exiles does is humanise the victims, but in turn it also humanises the public in the story who, like the reader, fails to realise what’s going on. The scenes of Kim being talked towards her own murder are hard to read; the scenes of Kim’s old friends rethinking every memory in a new light are somehow harder.

Hill points to this psychological shift as perhaps the most important step we need to take: “Ending domestic violence doesn’t just require money—it requires conviction and belief. Do we actually believe perpetrators can be stopped—not in generations to come, but right now?”

Not only do we have to see the abuse in non-physical forms, but law enforcement and civilians need to feel like they have the tools to handle it. Crucially, until the end, we never see Kim’s perspective. If anything, Exiles is a story of people coming to terms with “domestic abuse”, more than the abuse itself.

See What You Made Me Do should be recommended reading, for police officers and judges, media, and the wider public. That being said, academic works like Hill’s just do not have the wider audience that Harper does.

Not everyone will understand the complexity of coercive control. With thrillers or any other piece of fiction, people don’t have to; the academic concepts are tied to the most reliable and easily read stories out there today.

What Harper has done is crucial and commendable. Exiles symbolises a modern Australia willing to abandon a reductionist view of domestic abuse. The subtitle of Exiles is “We see what we expect to see.” That is certainly true for domestic abuse, and for the texts, fictional and non-fictional which examine it. It’s a shame that the book is only seen as another Outback murder mystery to add to the pile. 

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