The Exiles Return: A Novel

Elis­a­beth de Waal; Edmund de Waal, fwd.
  • Review
By – February 24, 2014

The Exiles Return by Elis­a­beth de Waal is a posthu­mous­ly pub­lished nov­el that was brought to light by the author’s grand­son, the writer and artist Edmund de Waal. The sto­ry takes place between 1954 and 1955, when Aus­tria was still under the con­trol of the occu­py­ing forces, and at times pow­er­ful­ly reminds read­ers that Aus­tria embraced Nazism enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly. It is by no means an his­tor­i­cal nov­el, but is about love, betray­al, and what it means to be an exile. Through sub­tle char­ac­ter state­ments the read­er under­stands what it is like to return to a home­land that has changed in appear­ance although not in atti­tude among Austria’s aris­to­crat­ic, cler­i­cal, and intel­lec­tu­al spheres.

The main char­ac­ters are three return­ing exiles: Theophil Kanakis, a descen­dant of a wealthy Greek-Aus­tri­an fam­i­ly; eigh­teen-year-old Marie-Theres Larsen, known as Resi, the Amer­i­can daugh­ter of an exiled Aus­tri­an princess; and Aus­tri­an Jew­ish pro­fes­sor Dr. Kuno Adler, who escaped the Nazi atroc­i­ties by emi­grat­ing to Amer­i­ca. All three dis­card the life they lived in Amer­i­ca to find some sal­va­tion in Aus­tria. Kanakis wants to use his mon­ey to fund a plea­sure-seek­ing life. Resi is sent to live with her Aus­tri­an rel­a­tives to be trans­formed from an indif­fer­ent, lazy, and dreamy ado­les­cent to a mature and respon­si­ble adult. But the char­ac­ter who pos­si­bly makes the most impact is Dr. Adler, who con­fronts anti-Semi­tism yet still con­sid­ers him­self an agnos­tic and not a man of faith.

It is inter­est­ing to see how the author explores such con­tro­ver­sial issues as homo­sex­u­al rela­tion­ships, inter­faith rela­tion­ships, and preg­nan­cy out of wed­lock. Read­ers will see how atti­tudes have changed from the peri­od when the book was writ­ten, the 1950s, to the cur­rent time. The most grip­ping issue dis­cussed is when Dr. Adler is con­front­ed by his supe­ri­or, who per­formed med­ical exper­i­ments with the Nazis on con­cen­tra­tion camp vic­tims. Dr. Adler bril­liant­ly responds, I am one of those, Dr. Krieger, whom you didn’t get rid of.”

Mr. De Waal explains in the fore­word that there is a lit­tle of his grand­moth­er in all of the main char­ac­ters. He writes, Elis­a­beth de Waal was Vien­nese and this is a nov­el about being Vien­nese. As such, it is a nov­el about exile and about return, about the push and pull of love, anger and despair about a place which is part of your iden­ti­ty, but which has also reject­ed you.The Exiles Return is alive to this com­plex­i­ty and it stands, in part, as a kind of auto­bi­og­ra­phy in its map­ping of these emotions…But above all the book is about the heart­break of returning.”

The Exiles Return is a riv­et­ing nov­el that is about iden­ti­ty, los­ing a home­land, and return­ing to find that time has not stopped. It is a sto­ry of how the dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters were affect­ed pre- and post-World War II, and how their lives became intertwined.

Elise Coop­er lives in Los Ange­les and has writ­ten numer­ous nation­al secu­ri­ty arti­cles sup­port­ing Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A’s for many dif­fer­ent out­lets includ­ing the Mil­i­tary Press. She has had the plea­sure to inter­view best­selling authors from many dif­fer­ent genres.

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