Exiled by Shireen Jilla

15th Apr 2011


Ever dreamed of living in Manhattan? This is the complete opposite of the glitz and glamour Carrie and co and Alicia Keys sold us – this New York is a teeming pit of hissing vipers, only just covered with a finely-buffed veneer of sophistication.

Our narrator, the smart but naïve heroine Anna Weitzman, was an artist when she met the ambitious young diplomat Jessie. When a great job in the UN comes calling for him, they merrily skip out of London for the brighter lights and bigger city of New York.

The foreword whips through the basic back story, and sets the melodramatic tone. It’s dotted with portentous phrases such as: ‘…until it was too late…’ and ‘…or did he?’ etc. Can you hear the ‘DUN DUN DUUUNNN’? Such crude signposting isn’t necessary in the otherwise clean-cut prose.

There are some clever touches, though. I’m sure I saw some rather elegantly hidden commands to focus on certain characters or plotlines way ahead of time. Either that or the paranoid tone was set so well that I started seeing things too!

Initially the move is a breathless adventure, full of hope! Possibility! Opportunity! A child! But even before the foreword is over, you can almost hear the jaunty background music slowing down and becoming ominously discordant.

The awkward moment three NYPD cops are stood in Anna’s bedroom in the wee hours, demanding answers after little Josh is reported to be ‘endangered’, it’s apparent things are going to go tits-up. That visit turns out to be the first in a sequence of increasingly rude awakenings.

But Exiled isn’t about a fish out of water. It’s a fight for territory: Jessie and Anna’s four-year-old son, Josh. And that fight is with Jessie’s stepmother, Nancy. She’s super-rich, nipped and tucked – and frankly, poor old Anna’s fucked.

While Anna actually gave birth to Josh, caring philanthropist Nancy has her own claims to ownership, and both women become locked in a desperate battle for the child. Anna relies on her wits and what’s left of her fraying sanity and nerve; Nancy has killer ensembles, wealth, and far-reaching influence.

Interestingly, Exiled talks about modern parenting, too. We’ve got chummy parents, distant dads, slummy mummies and Tiger Moms. There’s the scary doublespeak of officialdom which make grown-ups feel like naughty children. Will Anna escape from this glossy prison with her sanity – and with her son?

Jilla really makes you feel Anna’s powerlessness and impotent rage, but something in me didn’t cheer at the end. Naïve and as cold as the rest of the cast, she isn’t the strong, empathetic heroine this story really needed.

On the positive side, the pace is cracking, and you genuinely feel on edge the entire time. Exiled feels like a farce, but one with all the humour sucked out and replaced with menace. Jilla does a wonderful job of making you turn the page; I read four chapters in one sitting.

Exiled is out now on Quartet Books. The paperback is £8.40; the Kindle version is £5.52.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: If you aren’t flying out to New York, and like other brooding thrillers like The Bed I Made by Lucie Whitehouse. Another elegant ‘expat wife out of water’ story is The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.

Georgina Copeland