For me, as a lover of all things historical, wars are fascinating. As a lover of fiction, fiction based on reality, it’s the aftermath of the war that’s as fascinating as anything else.
This made the posthumous publication of Elisabeth de Waal’s THE EXILES RETURN the perfect choice for me. The blurb on the back cover even proclaimed the book to be similar to one of the most moving books I’ve read about the effects of war on the average man; EVERY MAN DIES ALONE by Hans Fallada. I was hooked by the blurb, I suppose you could say.
THE EXILES RETURN is the story of a handful of Austrians who return to their native land fifteen or so years after the end of the Second World War. One, Professor Kuno Adler, is a Jewish scientist who managed to escape to America before the Nazis caught him. Another is Theophil Kanakis, from a family of Austrian Greeks, who found incredible wealth in America before returning. Then there is Marie-Theres (or Resi as the Austrians insist on calling her, often to her dismay) who is the daughter of an Austrian-born princess who moved to America and delivered her daughter there.
Of the three, I found Adler the most compelling. He left behind a wife and daughters in America simply because he didn’t feel at home there. He wanted to be at home, in Austria. The place of his birth called to him and he couldn’t ignore the call. It took real bravery for him to give it all up a second time, not knowing where he could begin again. While the other characters in the story are more interconnected, even the non-exiles, Adler sort of kept to the periphery of it all. That made sense, given how he seemed the sort of man who would always be on the periphery of anything – always there but not always noticed.
Kanakis was the most pathetic, in a depressing sort of way. He was desperate to be what his immigrant family wasn’t while he grew up in Austria. He wanted to be rich, he wanted to have pretty friends, he wanted to know royalty, he wanted to be fawned over, he wanted to be adored. Money bought him most of those things, even royalty in the form of an utterly despicable young prince who everyone called Bimbo – an apt nickname if ever there was one, but Kanakis found out quickly that money is transitory and the things it buys don’t always stay as long as one might like.
Marie-Theres is the character I relate to most. She didn’t end up in Austria by choice. She’d have been perfectly happy to stay home with her books and records and vaguely ambiguous relationship with a college boy named Budd. With a social butterfly princess for a mother, that never would have worked out for her. She was packed off to her aunts where, speaking just enough German to get by, she got tragically caught up in the pull of a society still pulling itself together after being shattered by war. She never really stood a chance.
THE EXILES RETURN wasn’t published in de Waal’s lifetime. According the biography in the book and the introduction by Edmund de Waal, she wrote two novels in German and three in English. I, for one, hope they all end up published. This one drew me in and I have no doubt the others will.
(I received a copy of THE EXILES RETURN through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. This review will be cross-posted there.)