Persephone generally publishes books that have often enjoyed great success in the past, but have been out of print for a number of years. This is not the case with The Exiles Return. The author Elisabeth De Waal was the grandmother of Edmund De Waal who wrote the hugely successful The Hare with Amber Eyes – which I have not read – I think I might though now. It is solely through his efforts that Elisabeth’s book is now available. The manuscript of what became The Exiles Return Elisabeth De Waal kept with her on her travels across Europe for years, the story was important to her although it seems she had little hope of it ever being read by anyone, much less that it would be published. Before I go any further I must say I really enjoyed this book, which I hadn’t intended to read this month until I saw a lovely review of it from Claire at word by word. I loved the sense of time and place, the feeling of returning to place once loved is strong, and the idea of things being put back together again – of families reconnecting is one I really enjoyed. However I don’t think this is a faultless novel; there were moments when I felt oddly disconnected from it.
“Kuno Adler handed over his passport, his American passport, with a sense of defiance, as if challenging him to question its authenticity. The man leafed through it, looked at the photograph and at Adler himself for what seemed an intolerably long time, probably twenty seconds, cocking his head to look at him from all angles. All right, all right! Adler thought, of course he can see that I am a Jew, a refugee. What of it?
‘Coming back?’ the man asked, closing the passport and handing it back to him.
Adler had meant to answer the question in English. But somehow he couldn’t. ‘Ja’ he replied, and in the same soft German, ‘I’m coming back.’”
The Exiles Return is set in Austria in 1954/55 during the occupation following World War Two. As the title suggests it concerns the return home of people living in Exile. There are three story strands – which are linked slightly – but which at times felt oddly disjointed. Having thought about the novel some more since I finished it – I think that this is a strangely powerful way to portray that feeling of exile that Elisabeth De Waal herself experienced.
Professor Adler a Jewish scientist returns to Vienna from America where he has been living with his wife and daughters. However Adler returns alone, his relationship with his wife is difficult. Adler finds a place familiar and yet altered. The Professor finds he needs to work with people who had worked within the regime that saw him having to flee his homeland fifteen years earlier. Entrepreneur Kanakis, an Austrian of Greek descent returns, intending to find his dream home, and make money out of the new opportunities that he hopes will be opening up. Resi – is an American the nineteen year old daughter of immigrants, she is sent by her mother to her Austrian relations in the Austrian countryside. Resi enjoys her time in the country; she becomes happier in these idyllic surroundings, finding herself drawn to her aunt, and happy in the company of her older cousin Hanni. However a move to the city that allows Resi to attend university and socialise with friends of Hanni’s, sets in motion events that will lead to tragedy. (This is not a spoiler- the tragedy is revealed in the novel’s prelude).
I loved the story of Professor Adler – and rather wished I had rather more of him in the novel. His sad disillusion is touching, his delight in meeting up with an old man who he knew years earlier, and an unexpected romance are wonderfully poignant. Resi’s story is different – more dramatic, and for me, a little strange, especially at the end. I didn’t connect with the character of Resi – I was unconvinced by some of her actions and was a little confused by her attitude toward some of the characters – there were a few things for me which didn’t entirely hold together. All in all though I did enjoy this novel – and I am glad that I have read it, although I do feel it is not as strong as other Persephone novels.