"The Exiles," Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
Updated: Sep 6, 2020
Following her success with her bestselling novel “Orphan Train,” author Christina Baker Kline gifts readers with yet another stellar read.
In “The Exiles: A Novel,” set in mid-1800s Britain and Australia, Kline introduces readers to two females, one an Irish governess, the other an aboriginal child from what is now known as Tanzania, an island off the coast of Africa.
Kline expertly alternates their stories in a well-researched book about convict women banished from Britain for their crimes. These unfortunates endured starvation, sickness, rape and death on ships bound for Australia. Once there, they were enslaved in putrid cells until being offered as domestic servants to upper class-Brits living on the continent.
Often these ill-fated women suffered because they'd engaged in petty thievery or were wrongly accused of a crime. The latter is the case for Evangeline Stokes, the 16-year-old daughter of an Irish vicar who takes a position as a governess in the London home of a fine English family. There Evangeline falls under the spell of wealthy Cecil Frederic Whitstone, who gifts her with a luminous ruby ring.
When he goes away, not knowing Evangeline is pregnant, a housemaid discovers the ring in Evangeline’s room, and accuses the girl of theft. Shocked at the charge, Evangeline reacts and accidentally causes the maid to tumble down the stairs.
Kline alternates Evangeline’s fate on the slave ship, with the engrossing tale of Mathinna, an 8-year-old aboriginal girl, the daughter of a chief, who is taken away from her people to serve as a plaything for a rich Englishwoman.
Eventually, Mathinna and Evangeline’s stories intersect, and expand to include Hazel, another strong female character Evangeline meets on the ship. Kline expertly juggles their stories in a book that captivates, holding readers interest from first page to last as she brings other majors player on board, each fully drawn and intriguing in their own right.
“The Exiles” is superlatively crafted as Kline reveals a shamed time in history. Also impressive is a surprise Kline executes with ease—it works as this clever author pulls out all the stops with one of her main characters in a novel certain to be embraced by many.