The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

I was intrigued by The Exiles Return as soon a I saw it written about, as a forthcoming Persephone Book last autumn. The authors name was familiar, because it was her grandson who wrote The Hare With Amber Eyes, a book that I think everyone in the world but me had read. But this was a book that hadn’t been read, though the author made every effort to get it into print.

And yet it holds stories that have been little told. Stories of  exiles returning to Austria after the war, when the country regained its independence. Fascinating stories, that are quietly compelling because they are much more than stories. They are testimonies created from the authors own experiences.

Persephone Endpapers

Persephone Endpapers

There are three main strands. There is a Jewish professor who had taken his family to America when he saw danger at home; they thrived in their new life but he did not, and has returned alone. There is an entrepreneur, of Greek descent, who is returning to a city where he believes he will find business and social openings. And there is an American girl, the daughter of immigrants, who has been sent to stay with relations in the hope that it would pull her out of what seemed to be apathy with her life.

And in consequence there are three very different stories, told in different styles. I questioned the shifting narrative at first, but as I read I came to realise that it was very, very effective. It emphasised that so many lives were affected, in so many ways, and that there would be countless consequences.

There are so many moments that I could pull out.

Professor Adler’s realisation that he really had come home. His later realisation that home had changed, in ways he had not anticipated. Most of all his realisation that there were people who had supported what he saw as an evil regime among his friends, neighbours and collegues.

For me Professor Adler was the emotional centre of the story. He was an intelligent and sensitive man, and he saw that the years he spent in exile could not be made up, that her would always be a little out of step with those who had stayed. The telling of his story was pitch perfect and utterly moving.

His experiences may have mirrored those of a German gentlemen who lived here on the promenade until he died a few years ago. He and his wife came to England during the war to try to raise awareness of what was happening in Germany, and they went home after the war but eventually they retired back to Cornwall. I am so pleased that this book has finally come into print, to shine a light on stories like his.

Resi’s story touched me too. She blossomed as she met her Austrian family, as she learned new things about her family background, and it was lovely to watch her living happily, in the country, with her cousins. It was the family’s move to the city that took the desperately pretty Resi out of her depth, and kicked off the plot that would bring the different strands of the story together.

That plot didn’t quite work, it felt a little over dramatic after the subtle and thought-provoking writing that has come before. And I was unconvinced that Resi would have acted as she did at the very end. But that by no means spoiled things, and I am more than ready to believe that a dramatic plot might have been necessary to sell a book about the consequences of war when it was written, years ago.

The Exiles Return is not the best written or the best structured novel on Persephone’s list. But it is as heartfelt, as honest, and as profound, as any of the one hundred and one titles it joins.

Essential reading.

5 responses

  1. I felt exactly the same about this book. Resi’s story doesn’t quite work and I thought the last bit overly dramatic, but it doesn’t matter because the rest of it’s so good, and like you say explores themes and issues that are reasonably unusual.

  2. I just listened to the BBC Radio 4 interview with de Waal this morning! I haven’t read his book yet, but now I definitely want to read The Hare with the Amber Eyes and this one as well. I love the endpapers, they look very nautical.

  3. I agree with you, I think the publishers at the time were right to reject it but I wish someone had offered to help knock it into shape – it could have been a classic with the right kind of guidance offered.

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