Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Exiles Return – Elisabeth de Waal

One of Persephone’s latest books is a previously unpublished work by Austrian writer Elisabeth de Waal set in the early 1950s and following five exiles returning to Vienna 15 years after the Anschluss (when Hitler’s troops marched in to ‘claim’ Austria in March 1938).

Elisabeth wrote The Exiles Return only a few years after the time in which it is set, which gives the piece and the characters a sense of fragility and rawness that might have been hard to recapture if written more recently.

Our five protagonists are all wildly varying in their stories. One is an eminent professor struggling to fit back in after 15 years working in New York, where his marriage crumbled. Another is a wealthy Greek businessman who is determined to rebuild the luxury pre-war existence he loved, while attempting to disguise his homosexuality. And Prince ‘Bimbo’ Grein is the man he is secretly in love with. Although Bimbo has inadvertently become entangled with American teenager Resi, who is staying with her Austrian family, leading to awful consequences. Lastly, there’s laboratory assistant Princess Nina, who brings a new layer of emotion to the professor.

The Exiles Return is not an easy read. And as much as I love Persephone books, this was one of only a few that I’ve struggled to finish. From a style perspective, it needs some gentle editing to iron out a few narrative niggles. And from a reader’s perspective, I found myself getting tangled up in knots with all the many different characters, the many secondary characters, and how they all interwove.

However, this is clearly a very important book, and it’s essential that we learn as much as we can about what is still very recent history. The reverberations of the Second World War are still sounding, and Elisabeth’s novel is a stark reminder of how damaging the war was not only to buildings and cities, but to the persecuted individuals who were forced out of their homelands for more than a decade.

In this respect, the professor’s story is the most chilling. While teenage Resi’s story is equally saddening for different reasons – while, at 18, she was too young to know the Austria she was taken away from, she returns as a confused and naïve young woman who gets caught up in a world that nobody knows how to prepare her for.

Royalties from the sale of this book will be donated to the Refugee Council.

Click here to visit the Persephone Books website for more information.

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