I am a sucker for a good immigrant story. If I ever wrote a novel, it would be an immigrant story. I first came across The Invention of Exile (2014) on a list of great immigrant experience novels, alongside titles like The Namesake or The Joy Luck Club. So I put it on hold at the library to give it a try.
Author Vanessa Manko attended Hunter College for an MFA in Creative Writing, after receiving a BA and MA in English Literature from two different universities. With three degrees in literature and writing, you’d think Manko would be a pro. The idea for the novel The Invention of Exile came from Manko’s own family history. The problem here is that if you take the family lore and half remembered stories of your great-greats and try to turn them into a novel, there will be holes in the story. Manko needed to patch up these holes to tell a cohesive story, and flesh out her ancestors until they became relatable characters. Sadly, she didn’t.
Manko’s novel begins in Connecticut in 1913, where a Russian immigrant is working at a gun factory in Bridgeport. Austin, our Russian hero, falls in love with a young woman, Julia, who lives in the same boarding house as he does. Within the first few chapters of the book the two fall desperately in love, which is Manko’s first mistake. They barely talk to each other, but they are in love. The rest of the novel is built on the love story between the two, though little attention is given to cultivating it. The Invention of Exile goes on to tell the story of Austin’s deportation from the U.S. after he is suspected of being a Soviet Anarchist. Austin returns to Russia with his wife Julia, who gives up her life and family without second thought. After some trouble in Russia, they relocate to France, and then to Mexico (though they don’t speak Spanish) because Mexico is closer to America. Austin and Julia’s goal is to reenter the United State through any means possible. When Julia and their three children finally enter the U.S. on their long-awaited visas, Austin is not allowed to come along because of his past deportation, and his fight for entrance begins. His desperation becomes hysterical as he begins to plot to cross the border illegally, while becoming convinced that an FBI agent is watching his every move.
This novel could be a fascinating look at the long, complex history of America’s immigration policies, with a strong main character to root for. Instead it is a thin “love conquers all” story, with virtually no research. The whole novel is written in present tense third person. Manko distances herself from her story as well as the setting with a sparse narration style. This narration might work in a novel with a familiar setting, but the historical backdrop is never developed, and along with it, neither are the characters. Manko’s Connecticut does not look or feel any different than her Mexico City; her love story never makes me sad. A quote reads, “So this is it, then. Two lives. They live two lives. The life in their minds, the life at hand. And in that shared place, the landscape of the imagination, they continue to love each other; they live.” It’s a sketch of an idea with no gravitas. Whether this flaw is based in a lack of research on Manko’s part, or a narration choice that went wrong, there is nothing on the bones on the novel. The reader is as displaced as Austin and Julia are, and because of this I stopped caring whether Austin was ever allowed into America.
The second fatal flaw of The Invention of Exile is that the politics and policy of the story are also blurry, which leads me to believe that the first flaw is a product of faulty research instead of stylistic choice. When Austin is interviewed by American police who believe he is a Soviet anarchist set on destroying American capitalism, Manko does not explain the motive on the American’s side, nor does she successfully convince us of Austin’s standpoint. A quote from early on reads, “Austin stood in the open door, watching the meeting in the adjacent room, listening, ‘workers,’ ‘society,’ ‘capitalists.’” Manko just lists some words and hope her reader gets the idea. In the early part of the novel Austin can not speak English very well, and is confused by the motives behind the Soviet club that he attends. A misunderstanding starts him on this road to deportation and separation from his family. However, even if Austin’s inner monologue is in Russian, Manko could have at least translated his thoughts into English for the reader. Even if the characters don’t understand what’s going on, the reader should not also be kept in the dark. The heart of the story, which was obviously trying to be pro-immigrant, was lost in Austin’s confusion.
By the end I did not understand why this family even wanted to live in the United States, if the country had been nothing but trouble for them. The result was a novel about a great love that did not feel great, set in three vibrant and unique countries that felt neither vibrant or unique, about the complexities of the rise of the Soviet Union, American immigration law, and Mexican political unrest, none of which were properly explained to the reader. Perhaps this review is a bit harsh, but I have been noticing a trend in poorly researched historical fiction novels, which are written in a thin, artistic way, to mask a lack of know-how on the part of the author. Recent historical blunders include Alice Hoffman’s Marriage of Opposites (2015), and even the Pulitzer winner All the Light We Cannot See (2014). I can not lose myself in a poorly researched historical novel. Some people read for escapism, some read to learn new things, to explore other words. I left The Invention of Exile without having emotionally reached Mexico, without having learned anything about mid-century American immigration.
Research is hard. I was trying to write a multi-gen novel about WWII diaspora myself, until I stopped because the research I needed to continue was too much to even attempt at that point in my life. Writing historical fiction is a huge commitment. It should be a commitment to accuracy and to excellence. Vanessa Manko had a good idea and quickly wrote a first draft. Then instead of buckling down and hitting the library, she submitted that draft to be published.
A historical fiction novel can take a decade to research. Even I know this. So come on, budding authors of the world. Let’s not get lazy. I know we have Wikipedia now, but when your subject matter is taking you to four continents over four decades, you need to at least look like you tried.
Sarah V Diehl