The Far Cry by Emma Smith ****
The endpapers of Emma Smith’s The Far Cry are gorgeous – my favourites yet, I think. I knew next to nothing about this novel, and wasn’t sure what to expect from it. The Far Cry has a broad and sweeping plot, in which a young girl named Teresa Digby goes to India with her father, in order to escape the impending arrival of her overbearing mother from America. They go to stay with Teresa’s elder half-sister Ruth, and her husband, Edwin Tracy. Teresa is a complex construction, emotionally realistic and believable in everything she says and does. Ruth is formidable and mysterious, and Edwin is the kindest of the characters by far.
Smith has crafted her writing beautifully, and her turns of phrase are lovely. She writes descriptions with such clarity, and her ardent appreciation for nature is clear from the very start. The sense of place is so well described that it almost feels claustrophobic at times, particularly with regard to the Indian vistas. It presses in upon its characters, and the things which befall them along the way. I was swept away in the story, and found it very difficult to put A Far Cry down. It was a marvellous companion for an enormous Channel Tunnel delay which I was stuck in, and I would absolutely adore to read more of Smith’s work.
The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal ****
This is the 102nd book on the Persephone list. As with The Far Cry, I did not know much about this novel before I began to read it, apart from the fact that it was set in Austria. The Exiles Return was written in the late 1950s, and was not published in de Waal’s lifetime. The preface to the Persephone edition is written by the Viennese author’s grandson, Edmund de Waal. He states that his grandmother ‘wanted… to create novels of ideas’, and his introduction is truly fascinating.
The novel takes place over a relatively short period, beginning in 1954 and ending the following year, just after Austria recovered her independence following Hitler’s Anschluss. Whilst there are several characters who are introduced and focused upon in detail, the two protagonists of the piece are Professor Kuno Adler, ‘the academic whose need to return to Vienna is at the heart of the book’, and a ‘beautiful girl’ named Marie-Theres, the American-raised daughter of an Austrian princess, who comes to be known as Resi. Adler is barely on speaking terms with his wife, and has returned from New York alone, leaving his daughters in her care. Resi is sent to stay with her uncle and aunt, a Count and Countess, because it is believed that a change of scenery will be ‘good’ for her.
The characters whom de Waal focuses upon come from different walks of life – a prince who has lost most of his family to the Gestapo, a rich Greek man, and the children of the Count and Countess, for example. Pre- and post-war differences within Vienna are set out well, as are the ways in which the place impacts upon those who live within it. Lots of history has been bound alongside the story, and the novel consequently has such depths; it becomes richer as each new character or scene is introduced. The whole is rendered almost luscious in this respect. The Exiles Return is a fabulous addition to the Persephone list, and I can only hope that the rest of de Waal’s books are – or will soon be, at any rate – readily available in English.