Long Years on the Border

The Invention of Exile: A Novel, by Vanessa Manko, (Penguin Press), 304 pages

While there is a story underlying Vanessa Manko’s The Invention of Exile, the novel is not so much a narrative as a meditation. The plot is simple enough. Austin, a Russian immigrant, and Julia, a native-born American meet, fall in love, and are married traditionally with a promise ritual, rather than legally.

It’s the early 1920s and the U.S. is in the first of a recurring tide of panics about the Red Menace. The members of Austin’s Russian social club are rounded up, he is inappropriately labeled an anarchist, and he is deported to Russia, with Julia accompanying him.

As Russian communists begin to win the civil war, the two flee—first to Constantinople, then to France, and finally to Mexico because of its proximity to the U.S.—hoping that they can return to the nation where they met. After some effort, Julia and the three children are given visas to return. The family is assured that it will only be a matter of a few months before Austin has his visa as well. Those few months turn out to be fourteen years.

Though it’s written in third person, the bulk of the novel takes place within Austin’s mind as he waits in Mexico City, hoping for his visa. The story unspools in a series of reflections that move back and forth in time. This is both the novel’s strength and its weakness. Austin’s internal monologue is beautifully rendered in an almost elegiac way. Using Austin’s memories as a starting place, the reader is invited to contemplate a variety of complex topics: national identities, the nature of citizenship, the cruelty of bureaucracies, the structure of family, and the maintaining of familial relationships over lengthy temporal and geographic distances.

However, given Austin’s years of frustrations, one memory of uncertainty or separation follows another and the mood is bleak, leaving the book intellectually rich, but emotionally monotonous. My attention and reading speed varied as I moved through the book. When I was alert and up for a bit of philosophizing I could move through it quickly and with engagement, but whenever I was a bit tired my reading speed slowed and I lost focus, the novel feeling like a dark, unseeable river moving past me at a turgid pace.

The Invention of Exile is an interesting read, but it makes demands that not all readers will want to meet, particularly those more used to narrative-driven fiction.