The Invention of Exile

Written by Vanessa Manko
Review by Marina Maxwell

Russian immigrant, Ustin (Austin) Voronkov, works in a New York factory. He falls in love with an American girl, Julia, and his life is full of promise until 1920, when he becomes trapped in the growing hysteria and suspicion that all Russians must be Bolsheviks, if only by association. He is arrested and interrogated but foolishly expresses honest opinions about religion and government that only serve to brand him as an anarchist, and so he is deported back to Russia. Julia travels with him during what turns into years of displacement. Eventually she and the children are able to return home, but Austin is left behind in Mexico to plead a review of his case for re-entry while he works on engineering inventions that he hopes will assist his application. Meanwhile, he is troubled by a sinister individual, Jack, who will not let him forget the past. Only in the late 1940s, when two of Austin’s children travel to Mexico, is there a bittersweet resolution for all of them.

Rarely do historical novels tackle the topic of stateless people, refugees and political undesirables – those who have “no geography [and are] lost to each other and the world” – and this story carries powerful echoes for today with many such people still trapped in limbo and suffering psychological damage.

This moving and sympathetic book is rooted in the author’s own family history and will appeal to anyone with a similar heritage, but it has an uneven literary style with much left unanswered. There is insufficient background to the second flight from Russia and the interim period in Europe. Also, more of Julia’s viewpoint on how she coped with the many upheavals and separation could have added further depth and dimension.