Austin Voronkov is many things. He is an engineer, an inventor, and, in 1913, an immigrant from Russia to Bridgeport, Connecticut. When Austin is wrongly accused of attending anarchist gatherings, he is forced to flee with his new bride, Julia, to Russia, and then to Mexico. While Julia and their children are able to return to the United States, Austin becomes indefinitely stranded in Mexico City. He keeps a daily correspondence with Julia, and they each exchange their hopes and fears for the future as they struggle to remain a family across a distance of two countries. Austin and Julia’s struggles build to a crisis and a heartrending resolution in this dazzling, sweeping debut. The Invention of Exile is a deeply moving testament to the enduring power of family and the meaning of home.
“[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.”
“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):
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.”
Some stories we inherit. This is one of those stories. I grew up hearing about this story long before I ever knew I would become a writer. It came to me in bits and pieces, fragmented talk over family meals, conversation that was hesitant, melancholy, and filled with long pauses that stretched into years of silence. I heard about travels to foreign countries—Russia, Turkey, France, Mexico—and sensed the heartbreak of separation and the loneliness of what it is to be divided by a border. Yet the people in these stories, though my own family, seemed remote to me. I did not know them; more specifically, I did not know my grandfather, my father’s father, on whom the main character of this novel is based.
He is Austin Voronkov, an immigrant from Russia to Bridgeport, Connecticut. It is 1913 and 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. He retreats 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 United States, 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 believes 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.
A novel about exile, it is also a story of immigration and the aftermath of deportation and its effects on one family. Because ours is a country of immigrants, we all have stories about how our families came to settle here, stories filled with triumphs and failures, setbacks and new starts, for no path to this country is ever direct. As you read about Austin’s predicament, my hope is that you carry his story with you into discussions about dreams and the immemorial need for home, about the life at hand and the life in our minds, about the very real U.S.-Mexico border but also the more metaphorical borders between the past and present, sanity and madness. How well do we really know our family history, and what impact does this have on our identity? What does it mean to be a family? What can we learn from the past and how does it shape our understanding of the present? How do the lives we lead reflect both the lives we may have left behind and the lives we are still striving to lead?
As the novel is inspired by the life of a grandfather I never knew, writing it was a way for me to imagine who he might have been, and I’m delighted to share a version of his story with you. Thank you. I hope you enjoy the novel, and I hope you find much to discuss with your group.