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The Invention of Exile

A debut novel traces a wrongly exiled immigrant’s quest to be reunited with his family.

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.



“[An] impressive first novel.” —Carmela Ciuraru, The New York Times

“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.” —Boston Globe

“[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.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“A stunning, dream-like exploration of geographical and psychic borders… Manko weaves through time and place poetically, presenting striking images.” —Interview magazine 

“Wistful, perceptive… A poignant tale of an immigrant’s loss and longing.” —Christian Science Monitor 

“The summer’s surest candidate for lit-hit crossover.” New York Magazine

“Manko’s debut thrums with longing.” Vanity Fair

“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.” Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“[A] fine fiction debut… The beating heart of Manko’s story is Austin’s determination to be reunited with his family.” Publishers Weekly

“Manko’s debut is a potent examination of the costs of pride and fear as well as the redemptive power of familial bonds.” Booklist

“Beautifully written and deeply affecting. . . The novel reminds one, at times, of Kafka, Ondaatje, and even, in its powerful evocation of marooned isolation, Robinson Crusoe. A brilliant debut.” —Salman Rushdie

“A voice for the years to come. . . 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.” —Colum McCann, author of Transatlantic

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.” Siri Hustvedt, author of What I Loved and The Summer Without Men

“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.” Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name

“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.” Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances

“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.” —Betsy Detwiler, founder of Buttonwood Books in Cohasset, MA

Author Q&A


Day 1: January 19, 1920
Q. What is your name in Russian?
A. Ustin Voronkov.

Q. Inasmuch as you do not believe in God, will you affirm to tell the truth?
A. Yes.

Q. Where were you born?
A. Province of Kherson, Alexandriyska, Ulesd, Bokas Volost, village of Varvarovka.

Q. Are you married or single?
A. Married.

Q. Where is your wife now?
A. She lives in Bridgeport on Locust Street.

Q. When were you married?
A. There was no ceremony.

Q. In other words you were never married to this woman religiously or civilly?
A. There was no ceremony.

Q. How long have you lived with this woman?
A. About one and one half years.

Q. Why have you not married her according to the laws of this country?
A. Because we live with her family.

Q. Does she sleep with you?
A. No.

Q. Why did you say that you were married?
A. Because we gave an oath together.

Q. Did she ever sleep in your room?
A. No.

Q. Did you ever have sexual intercourse with her?
A. Not officially.

Q. You are employed by the Russian Commission?
A. Yes.

Q. What factory?
A. Remington Arms.

Q. What is your occupation?
A. An inspector.

Q. Of what?
A. Arms.

Q. Ever belong to the Union of Russian Workers?
A. I didn’t belong.

Q. There is such an organization as the Union of Russian Workers in Bridgeport?
A. There was.

Q. There still is?
A. It seems they made it better, but the Union of Russian Workers has an automobile school in Bridgeport.

Q. Was it known as the Soviet Automobile School?
A. No.

Q. We have information that this school was run and conducted under the auspices of the Union of Russian Workers. Did you know that?
A. I don’t know anything about this. I think the Soviets started it and then the pupils took it over for themselves.

Q. You mean the Union of Russian Workers started it?
A. No. The Soviets of Bridgeport.

Q. What do you mean “the Soviets” of Bridgeport? We have no “Soviets” in this country.
A. It was called “Soviet.”

Q. Have you an automobile?
A. No.

Q. Why were you interested in automobiles?
A. Because I was in the automobile business.

Q. Were you financially interested in the automobile business?
A. I am interested in every kind of knowledge.

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