Perhaps it’s obvious, given the title, that Jennifer Steil’s “Exile Music” takes quite seriously the human experience of music.
It’s less obvious, but no less pleasing, that Steil delivers on the promise of the title, writing prose that is frequently lyrical and occasionally elegiac. Her novel, a Holocaust story that promises a new sort of plot and delivers it, masks its length with this sort of writing; it’s as if Steil is writing herself into a lather, and you’re along with her. Suddenly, it’s been 400 pages and you didn’t even realize it. (It helps to have an engrossing plot, too.)
Befitting a novel that engages in such a way with music, the story is broken up into six “movements,” each following the journey of the Zingel family, a clan of Jewish musical artists and artists-in-training who are forced to flee prelapsarian, cosmopolitan Vienna for the mountains of Bolivia when the Nazis take power.
Steil takes great pains to underline the sweetness of these days for Orly, the youngest of the Zingels. It’s a sweetness that may threaten to overwhelm some palates, but does the job it’s meant to do.
In La Paz, music continues to provide for the family, but not in the same way. Orly and her parents mourn the loss of Vienna, both for what it comes to represent for them as well as for the creature comforts and refinement that came with it. But Orly comes to learn the rhythms of her new home, the rhythm of exile. It means new language, a new sense of what a day is and how it should go and a new sort of terrain, in every sense.
Those are ponderous, mournful things to learn for her, especially as she learns what it means to become an adult. If La Paz is exile from Vienna, then adulthood becomes exile from childhood, and Orly relates to it thusly; being ripped from the former is a wound she’ll bear for life, but it’s one that she was always going to wear.
Early on, Orly witnesses her father hand over a precious photo of himself as a younger man to a Nazi as the family flees their Vienna home. The photo had long sat in an exalted spot on the family mantel, and Orly doesn’t understand how her father could “give them something so dear.” Perhaps it is because her father understands that, as he’ll soon be exiled from Vienna, he’s already been exiled from the man in the photo. Sacred objects are nothing compared to the memories they represent.
Just like that, the Zingels are put out from their home.
“With the blur of our departure. With the monsters at our heels. With the sound of my knife, dropping uselessly to floor,” Steil writes, as Orly.
How’s that for a final note?
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