The Invention of Exile
At one point in Vanessa Manko's debut novel, THE INVENTION OF EXILE, her protagonist, Austin Voronkov, stands on the Mexico-U.S. border, just yards away from the country he both resents and longs for: "The beads of sweat formed along his back, tears rolled down his face, and his heart felt dry and parched with anguish as he felt something break, a deep terrible split, like a tendon torn, his heart beating faster, a sinking feeling as if he were falling from a great height, though when he looked he knew he was on the ground, and the tearing pulled and stretched and, as much as he tried to throw himself across, he felt it all fall away from him."
This moment of turmoil and torment is one of the few times Austin allows himself to succumb to the loss and injustice that have defined his adult life, even as he continues to try to do the right thing. Earlier in his life, when the border was more porous, Austin could conceivably have just walked across into the United States without consequence; now, however, in the 1940s, the border is more heavily controlled as American xenophobia rises to new heights of paranoia.
"Manko's narrative shifts back and forth between Austin's tedious existence in Mexico City and the circumstances that brought him to this point. Her writing style is alternately lyrical and percussive, with frequent sentence fragments serving to break up the prose and make it feel more immediate and spontaneous."
Austin's exile --- most agonizing because he is separated from his beloved wife, Julia, and their three children --- has arisen primarily from one bad interview, the result of the 1919-1920 Palmer Raids, which rounded up Russian immigrants in the wake of the Russian Revolution and questioned them to see if they were Communist sympathizers. Whether due to a language barrier, a misunderstanding, or sheer stubbornness, Austin inadvertently convinces the officials that he's an anarchist and finds himself deported, along with Julia.
Eager to get back to the United States, the couple eventually find sanctuary in Mexico, where Austin, an engineer in his native Russia, finds work first as a lighthouse keeper and later as a copper mine worker. When Julia and their children have the opportunity to return to the United States, they take it, convinced that she can advocate for her husband more effectively from within the U.S. Fourteen years on, however, Julia is still in Connecticut and Austin is still in Mexico City, running a relatively successful repair shop and despairing the fact that letters from his wife continue to dwindle in frequency. Austin strongly believes that the patent applications for his inventions will convince the U.S. government to allow him to return. Meanwhile, Julia's relative silence and some not altogether unwanted advances from an attractive repair shop customer leads Austin to wonder if all this waiting has just been futile.
THE INVENTION OF EXILE is, according to the author's acknowledgments, inspired by the life story of her grandparents, although her approach to the story goes far beyond mere retelling. Manko's narrative shifts back and forth between Austin's tedious existence in Mexico City and the circumstances that brought him to this point. Her writing style is alternately lyrical and percussive, with frequent sentence fragments serving to break up the prose and make it feel more immediate and spontaneous. Manko's novel is, in the end, about the ways a single moment can define a life, for better or for worse, and the circumstances, real or imagined, that can separate us from family and home, or the idea of home.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 15, 2014