What if you let the course of your life slip away? What if it is violently wrenched away?
Nearly everyone in this beautifully written novel wrestles with one of those questions, which boil down to one: How much control are you going to exert over your life?
Alec Malone, a photographer for a Washington newspaper and the son of a career US senator, “believed that life was, for the most part, involuntary”.
For all his passivity, Alec is a sympathetic and affecting character. But he’s a mystery to his parents, who made a life in national politics and a permanent home in Washington and never looked back. (Notably, Kim and Mag Malone are almost the only people here not living in limbo.)
A turning point for Alec is his refusal to do a six-week assignment in Vietnam, when covering a war would be a career-maker. (Just himself covered the Vietnam War as a reporter for the Washington Post.)
The managing editor is disappointed; Sen. Malone is angered and mystified. Alec says he has a wife and daughter, and anyway, photography is “not trustworthy.” The explanation doesn’t satisfy even Alec.
Exiles in the Garden is deceptively slim for an ambitious work. Set in Washington from the Kennedy administration to the current war in Iraq, it also takes in the landscape of European war.
Alec’s wife, Lucia, fled that landscape but also brought it with her. She and her mother escaped Czechoslovakia and the Nazis when she was three, and ended up in Switzerland. Her father vanished and she had no memory of him; her mother had a single photo of him at a cafe table in Prague.
She landed yet another time in Washington, caring for the children of the ambassador at the Swiss embassy. That’s where Alec photographed the beguiling young woman on a chance meeting during an assignment.
When Alec and Lucia marry, they buy a small rowhouse in Georgetown, with roses in the back yard:
“In that soft southern climate anything that germinated would grow but roses grew wonderfully.. When Lucia first arrived in the capital from Zurich she noticed gardens full of roses and longed for a garden of her own. She believed, incorrectly, that Washington was a city of gardeners. She did come to understand eventually that Washington was a city of lookers at gardens, quite another thing surely.”
Next door, the Count and Countess d’An entertain European exiles in their own spacious garden. The constant socializing and the heavy accents are a curiosity to Alec but a lifeline to Lucia.
She “listened avidly to the voices of her youth magically transported to the garden next door, the voices of involuntary exile, echoes of the Caucasus, the Carpathians, the Masurian lakes, Galicia, the Andalusian plain.”
The many evenings to come are an immersion in the culture of Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, but also, to Lucia, a “corpse-strewn path into the past.” To Alec, the exile community seems “to look backward, concerned with old wounds, grievances that went back generations.”
Most unsettling for Lucia is word from one of the exile regulars, Ambassador Kryg, that he had known her father, years after Andre Duran was thought to have died.
Time and politics scatter the count and countess and their guests. Alec and Lucia’s marriage falls apart. When she returns to Europe and takes daughter Mathilde with her, Alec remains in Washington, exiled in his lifelong home.
But Kryg was right about Lucia’s father. And despite the odds, Lucia and Alec are able at the end to meet again and hear Andre’s story. He fought the Nazis and was imprisoned first by them and then by the Soviets.
And he describes how he told an American historian and his assistant of his days in the partisan army: “I wanted them to know the war in the round, the atmosphere at the time, the hatred we felt one to the others… There were so many dead that the battlefield seemed to us like a bonfire, and the dead so many stray twigs fed into it.”
Alec’s former father-in-law becomes to him his polar opposite, a hero, fully engaged and living a life of consequence.
Ward Just has written often about the private lives of public people, often in politics. That’s less the case here. But he continues to write startlingly real characters who look back to ponder with unease the pattern they’ve discerned in their lives.
At first blush, the novel ends with Alec’s embrace of the lesson he took from Andre Duran’s life. On reflection, that’s not so clear. It’s the hallmark of a wonderful work that it creates a world that’s messy and true, so vivid that its sadness takes a little time to sink in.