Last month when I assembled my 20 Books of Summer I included only one work of fiction. Needing something representing Austria for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I selected Elisabeth de Waal’s 2014 novel The Exiles Return. Like so many other books featured on this blog I stumbled across it one Saturday morning at the public library. Wanting something set in Austria and noticing it takes place during the final year of the Allied occupation I found The Exiles Return impossible resist. After the novel’s slow start things eventually picked up and I found myself for the most part enjoying it. I don’t read a ton of fiction, but what I do tends to be recent stuff published within the last ten years. Stylistically, The Exiles Return feels different when compared to my usual reading fare, like it’s an older piece of fiction.
And that’s probably because it is. Elisabeth de Waal, a highly educated and talented Viennese Jewish émigré wrote it back in the 50s. Only recently her grandson Edmund de Waa, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes (another book I keep seeing at my public library and vowing someday to read) was able to get it published. In addition, The Exiles Return has a slight but noticeable old world flavor, undoubtedly the result of the author’s Mitteleuropa origins, making her the right kind of author to craft such a tale.
As the title would lead us to believe, it’s a story of three former residents (or in the case of one, the daughter of a former resident) who’ve returned to Austria 10 years after the conclusion of World War II. Much like Germany, its neighbor to the North, Austria lies shatterd, vanquished and occupied by the four victorious Allies of Great Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union. Kuno Adler, a Jewish medical scientist has returned to Vienna to continue his research from 15 years ago before having to flee for his life. Marie-Theres, the 18 year old daughter of an Austrian mother and Danish father, now both American residents, has been sent to live with her Austrian relatives in hopes the change in scenery and culture will transform her from a standoffish, unfocused girl into a mature, focused woman. (In other words, stop being so self-aborbed and settle down and get married to a nice young man.) Lastly, Theophil Kanakis, a wealthy member of the country’s former Greek community has returned to Vienna in hopes of taking advantage of Austria’s depressed post-war economy to buy low and sell high. Like many a good story, all three of their lives intersect in one way or another.
What I liked most about The Exiles Return wasn’t as much the novel’s story, but the story behind the novel. 60 years after a brilliant Jewish refugee penned a novel it’s finally published for the world to read. Such a story is worthy of a novel all its own.