Monday, November 30, 2020

Review: Exile Music by Jennifer Steil

by Jennifer Steil
Release Date: May 5th 2020
2020 Viking
Hardcover Edition; 415 Pages
ISBN: 978-0525561811
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from publisher

4 / 5 Stars

As a young girl growing up in Vienna in the 1930s, Orly has an idyllic childhood filled with music. Her father plays the viola in the Philharmonic, her mother is a well-regarded opera singer, her beloved and charismatic older brother holds the neighborhood in his thrall, and most of her eccentric and wonderful extended family live nearby. Only vaguely aware of Hitler's rise or how her Jewish heritage will define her family's identity, Orly spends her days immersed in play with her best friend and upstairs neighbor, Anneliese. Together they dream up vivid and elaborate worlds, where they can escape the growing tensions around them.

But in 1938, Orly's peaceful life is shattered when the Germans arrive. Her older brother flees Vienna first, and soon Orly, her father, and her mother procure refugee visas for La Paz, a city high up in the Bolivian Andes. Even as the number of Jewish refugees in the small community grows, her family is haunted by the music that can no longer be their livelihood, and by the family and friends they left behind. While Orly and her father find their footing in the mountains, Orly's mother grows even more distant, harboring a secret that could put their family at risk again. Years pass, the war ends, and Orly must decide: Is the love and adventure she has found in La Paz what defines home, or is the pull of her past in Europe--and the piece of her heart she left with Anneliese--too strong to ignore?
My Thoughts
Exile Music was a fantastic book about the resilience of people who have lost everything and everyone they hold dear as they are forced to flee a country that had changed around them and to adopt a new country and culture that was completely different from what they had previously known in order to survive.  This was a sweeping story that focused more on survival and hope rather than on the war. 

Orly was a young girl who enjoyed a comfortable life in Vienna during the early thirties.  Her parents were well-known musicians, one an opera singer, the other playing the viola for the Vienna Philharmonic.  Her best friend lived upstairs and together they created an idyllic world of fairy tales and stories that depicted their life events.  

Throughout the descriptions of their idyllic life though, you could feel the tension and darkness interwoven throughout through interrupted conversations and events through Orly's eyes she didn't understand but the reader did.  It slowly crept through their lives and introduced a menace that you could just feel. People disappearing, people being hurt, families losing their homes, etc...A brilliant piece of writing by the author.  And then Kristallnacht happened.  The desperation as people attempted to flee to safer areas to protect their loved ones, as people who were friends suddenly turned on you, as people were killed, and so much property destroyed.  It broke my heart to read about Jakob's attempts to get visas for his family to get out of Austria and no one would take them.  I know the history as I teach it, but it still saddens me every time I read about it.  To think so many others could have been saved and nothing was done.  
Bolivia.  The last country to accept Jewish refugees.  High in the Andes Mountains, a very different world from what they knew in Austria. Orly adapted much easier than her parents, but then, she was a child and children do tend to adapt easier than adults.  And the adults were mourning the families they left behind, of whom they had little news, and the news they received was horrible.  Jakob eventually returned to his music and opened up a school to teach young musicians, but Orly's mother refused to sing again, and this made me so sad.  I have read hundreds of books about World War II, but for some reason this touched me so much.  
What I definitely appreciated was the author's touch when it came to the Nazi soldiers who also escaped to Bolivia.  She was just stating the facts and leaving it up to the reader to be judge and jury over the situation; however, using Orly's mother to deal with the situation in the way that she did definitely shows that some things should never be forgotten, nor forgiven.  What happened during the war was atrocious.  I can't even think of a word that is strong enough.

Exile Music is a sprawling book that covers events in Austria before the war actually begins, then heads over the Bolivia and the events that occurred there during the war and afterwards.  While the story is definitely tragic in so many ways, there is also an element of hope, in Orly and in her parents.  I loved the story and I loved the setting, learning so much more about Bolivia and its people.  There is definitely a lot to learn in this book, but it is a beautiful story as well. Highly recommend.


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