Let me begin by saying that I have not read Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes, though everyone whose reviews of The Exiles Return I have read seems to have done so. If you have no idea what I am talking about, well, Edmund de Waal's book mentions his grandmother, Elizabeth de Waal, the author of this novel. Indeed the novel would probably never have got published had this not been the case. Written in the 1950s, it sat around for 60 years until Persephone brought it out recently for us all to enjoy.
An exile herself, de Waal writes with great sympathy of those who are returning to their old home -- in this case Vienna -- after the second world war. most of us would perhaps think this would be a happy state of affairs. After years away from place we grew up and loved, what could be more wonderful than to get back to the old haunts, the streets we knew so well, and to hear the language of our childhood. But this is not the case with the exiles of this sensitive novel. Professor Kuno Adler, coming back from a successful but empty life in America (and having left his successful but empty wife behind) is completely thrown by the changes in the city he remembers so well, and by the fact that he is offered a job of a far lower status than the one he had overseas. Lonely and disoriented, he wonders if he did right to come back. Theophil Kanakis, on the other hand, is not seeking the past but has an eye to the main chance -- returning a rich man, he imagines, and soon finds, a crumbling 18th century palazzo to restore in which he can live his decadent and luxurious life. Last of all there is Marie-Theres -- Resi -- who, though technically an exile, has been raised and educated in America and has no memory of her birthplace. Resi has been sent to stay with one of her aunts, to whom she is as much of a puzzle as she was to her parents. Resi is beautiful, but seems completely devoid of feeling, emotion, even thought. She did not mix with the others, she did not conform, and by the studied politeness in her manners she seemed to surround herself with a kind of vacuum she allowed no-one to penetrate.
Really, this is a sad novel about sad people. Fortunately, Kuno Adler finds some happiness and fulfilment by the end, but the same cannot be said for Resi, whose only venture into feelings ends tragically. While I found it interesting and often perceptive, I can't really say that I enjoyed it enormously, though I'm glad it read it. I wonder if we will see any more of Elizabeth de Waal's so far unpublished novels? I'd certainly be interested to read another.