When Edmund de Waal began to research the history of his family, he had no idea that he was embarking on a journey that would take him five years to complete and would encompass several continents. His exploration of the wealthy Ephrussis family became the subject of the award-winning memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes. As part of his research, de Waal’s father handed him a stack of manuscripts belonging to Edmund’s grandmother, Elisabeth de Waal, including the novel The Exiles Return, which is now being published for the first time.
Elisabeth Ephrussis de Waal was born into an exceptionally privileged family in turn-of-the-century Vienna. She studied philosophy and economics and was also a gifted poet. Living in Paris and then London, she traveled to Vienna weeks after the German invasion of 1938 to save her parents and was able to bring her father to England. After the war, she returned to Vienna to discover what had happened to her family and their belongings, a quest that kept her working for justice for more than a decade.
Set in Vienna in the early 1950s, The Exiles Return is less a novel than a series of tightly written overlapping portraits of exiles coming to terms with a radically changed landscape. Jewish scientist Professor Kuno Adler has been living in America, safely, albeit unhappily, with his corsetiere wife. He goes back, not just to Vienna, but to the laboratory where he once worked, insisting they owe him his previous job. Despite lingering anti-Semitism, Vienna is his home, and he is eager to reclaim it. Most poignant is the arrival of Resi, the brooding teenage daughter of a Viennese princess. Raised in America, Resi is sent back to Vienna to stay with relatives, and, like a Henry James heroine, her innocence is no match for European experience, made all the more desperate in the postwar economy. But it is postwar Vienna that is de Waal’s greatest character, a city trying to rebuild in a totally altered world after terrible devastation.
The Exiles Return explores identity, loss, departure and perhaps the greater pain of return. Though none of these characters are a direct portrait of their creator, each one carries a fragment of her experience. The clear, almost spare writing leaves plenty of space in which to imagine the powerful emotions at play in this quietly devastating novel.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Edmund de Waal for The Exiles Return.