The Invention of Exile
By Vanessa Manko
(Penguin Press, Hardcover, 9781594205880, 304pp.)
Publication Date: August 14, 2014
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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Austin Voronkov is many things. He is an engineer, an inventor, an immigrant from Russia to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1913, where he gets a job at a rifle factory. At the house where he rents a room, he falls in love with a woman named Julia, who becomes his wife and the mother of his three children. When Austin is wrongly accused of attending anarchist gatherings his limited grasp of English condemns him to his fate as a deportee, retreating with his new bride to his home in Russia, where he and his young family become embroiled in the Civil War and must flee once again, to Mexico.
While Julia and the children are eventually able to return to the U.S., Austin becomes indefinitely stranded in Mexico City because of the black mark on his record. He keeps a daily correspondence with Julia, as they each exchange their hopes and fears for the future, and as they struggle to remain a family across a distance of two countries. Austin becomes convinced that his engineering designs will be awarded patents, thereby paving the way for the government to approve his return and award his long sought-after American citizenship. At the same time he becomes convinced that an FBI agent is monitoring his every move, with the intent of blocking any possible return to the United States.
Austin and Julia's struggles build to crisis and heartrending resolution in this dazzling, sweeping debut. The novel is based in part on Vanessa Manko's family history and the life of a grandfather she never knew. Manko used this history as a jumping off point for the novel, which focuses on borders between the past and present, sanity and madness, while the very real U.S.-Mexico border looms. The novel also explores how loss reshapes and transforms lives. It is a deeply moving testament to the enduring power of family and the meaning of home.
Vanessa Manko earned her MFA in creative writing from Hunter College. She has taught writing at NYU and SUNY Purchase. An excerpt of her novel was published in Granta's winter 2012 issue. Originally from Brookfield, Connecticut, Manko now lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Carmela Ciuraru, The New York Times:
“[An] impressive first novel.”
“Rich in history and far-reaching in scope, The Invention of Exile is an achingly painful and all too relevant meditation on what can happen to identity when human beings are crammed inside an unforgiving container of politics, bureaucracy, and fear…[A] wonderful first novel.”
San Francisco Chronicle:
“[An] assured debut…Manko paints a complicated and richly human portrait of the specific loss and separation that borders impose—a timeless subject that resonates with particular relevance in the contemporary moment.”
“A stunning, dream-like exploration of geographical and psychic borders… Manko weaves through time and place poetically, presenting striking images.”
Christian Science Monitor:
“Wistful, perceptive… A poignant tale of an immigrant's loss and longing.”
New York Magazine:
“The summer’s surest candidate for lit-hit crossover.”
“Manko’s debut thrums with longing.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred):
“A superb study of statelessness…Manko brings plenty of energy to this tale…Manko is a tremendous stylist, using clipped, simple sentences to capture Austin’s mindset as his confidence in escape erodes but never entirely fades; Manko’s shift in perspective toward the end of the book reveals just how much the years of exile have weathered him. She deeply explores two complicated questions: What is the impact of years of lacking a country? And how much does this lack reside in our imaginations? A top-notch debut, at once sober and lively and provocative.”
“[A] fine fiction debut… The beating heart of Manko’s story is Austin’s determination to be reunited with his family.”
“Manko’s debut is a potent examination of the costs of pride and fear as well as the redemptive power of familial bonds.”
The Independent (UK):
"Breathless.... Manko's prose and pacing are remarkably assured, rapid when traversing oceans and decades, unbearably tense when Voronkov attempts to re-enter America. 'Paper is stronger than one realises,' is a refrain based in part on the author's family history. With these indelible pages, Manko does her ancestors proud."
Salman Rushdie, author of Joseph Anton and Midnight's Children:
"Vanessa Manko's beautifully written and deeply affecting first novel is the story of a man stranded by history in a strange land, torn away by politics and paranoia from the people he loves, exiled and trapped behind an invisible frontier he dares not cross. Manko ranges expertly between Russia, the USA and Mexico to weave her absorbing tale of emigration, deportation, desperation, paranoia, and finally, improbably, love. The novel reminds one, at times, of Kafka, Ondaatje, and even, in its powerful evocation of marooned isolation, Robinson Crusoe. A brilliant debut."
Colum McCann, author of Transatlantic and Let the Great World Spin:
“Vanessa Manko is a voice for the years to come. Her first novel, The Invention of Exile, is an ambitious tale of a Russian émigré in Mexico City. It is an unflinching portrait of how our lives are structured around the complications of geography, beauty and chance, and, at its core, it is a story about those who live in the double shadows of home and history.”
Siri Hustvedt, author of What I Loved and The Summer Without Men:
“The Invention of Exile is an achingly immediate, sensuous, and psychologically acute novel about a man whose life has been suspended by the madness of American politics. The book moves deftly between past and present and from one consciousness to another to create a narrative of high emotional tension that turns on the fate of its exiled central character, the Russian born 'Austin.' Manko’s tender, compassionate, and wise portrait of this man, who waits and waits and waits to return to the life he was meant to live, continues to reverberate inside me. I suspect I will carry him around with me for years to come.”
Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name:
"Only writing like Vanessa Manko's, so finely tuned to subtle and nearly inexpressible emotions, to the whispers of deepest loneliness, to the inner-life of a man cut-off from family and country by the capricious machinery of politics and prejudice, can draw such a secret, marginal, puzzling life out of the shadows, and give it the vivid force and poetry of a universal myth. The novel's depiction of Austin [Voronkov] is so intimate and moving that I felt, as I read, that I was living his desperate life myself. The Invention of Exile is a beautiful, bewitching and profound novel."
Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Distrubances:
"Vanessa Manko's fantastically ambitious and rewarding novel, The Invention of Exile, lovingly and carefully details the terrible but wondrous twining of one man's fate with Russian, Mexican and American history."
Betsy Detwiler, founder of Buttonwood Books in Cohasset, MA:
“Vanessa Manko is a true artist with words. Every locale, every scene, every emotion and interaction of characters is vividly created, all through observation of the small details and habits of daily life. The pain of exile, the loneliness, the futility of Austin Voronkov's efforts to reclaim his life, the injustice of the events which have brought him to his desperate existence; all these weigh more heavily as the story of his months and years brings the tension to a heartbreaking pitch. The ending is so right. On the one hand, so anticlimactic, on the other so fraught with the understanding of what lies ahead for Austin. Manko's writing is stunning, and she is able to move so beautifully between past and present. This is an unforgettable debut.”